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Web of Confusion

Elizabeth-Burton Jones
CCTP – 748

“Web of Confusion”

Sir Walter Scott once wrote “Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive”. The meanings and messages become congealed. Signals are crossed and the validity of communication is ever changed. This week’s topic of semiotics was an introduction to different angles of previous personal academic studies. To exemplify my questions from this week, I would like to look at the movie “An Education”, “He’s Just Not That Into You”, and the absurdist play “Waiting for Gordot” .

The Movie “An Education” follows the story of a young girl that is at a crossroads between education and love. She can either choose the “logical” higher educational path or follow a considerably older conniving lover wherever he goes and give up the socially constructed educational ideal.

The choice seems simple. However, there are different twists and turns that shape the tumultuous love’s path. We can observe the movie “An Education” through the lens of semiotics, by studying the fractured semiotic state.

First, we must question the characters. The young female character, is a seemingly innocent teenager that has a promising future. She is set on the path to Oxford. However, she meets this dashing man and becomes mesmerized. She’s taken aback by his charm and edgy lifestyle. She trusts him. But why?

The answer is because of his ability to command communication. The best example of this is the transitional relationship between the father and the boyfriend. At first the father did not like the notion of her daughter dating an older man. However, the man was very good at controlling the situations. He would often lie.

The notion of semiotics is seemingly changed by the conniving boyfriend. He makes me question the validity of semiotics if they can be manipulated.

I think this song called “You’ve Got Me Wrapped Around Your Little Finger” is a good example of how the power of meaning and how we portray the meaning of being completely surrounded by a lie disguised as love.

Another good example would be the movie “He’s Just Not that Into You”

This movie is filled with double meanings. The main character, Gigi, believes that every look and every pause that a guy makes is a sign of his unending love for her. I think this is another way of looking at the meaning behind the message.

The whole world of dating is a world full of personal interpretations that are often skewed by a person’s journey.

 Another question of meaning comes from the absurdist play, “Waiting for Gordot”. I had to study this play and I remember feeling very confused by the language and the wonderful acting. In the end, there were a plethora of opportunities to interpret the meaning of the play.

Finally, music has all types of confusion twisting However, I really liked the ideas about signs and meanings. I would like to know how to decode all of the signs in this music video:


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

Irvine, “Introduction to Meaning Making, Symbolic Cognition, and Semiotics” (begin here)
Read sections 1-4 of this book chapter in progress. We will use later sections next week.


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-.

“What Feelings Sound Like”

Elizabeth-Burton Jones
Week 4

“What Feelings Sound Like”

A river flows alongside the grass and clashes abreast rocks. The fish, the snakes, the frogs take refuge in the flow. It moves, and with this movement the river’s environment is introduced to different terrains some calm and some tumultuous. And in one moment this river flows into a fall. The river starts to disconnect and the environment that once was flowing, becomes a scrambled flow, still moving, yet ever-changing in the movement. Ever-changing in the fall.  Splat. Splash. Mist.  But with all of these changes, it is still flowing. As water cascades down from a waterfall so too do thoughts flow from one aspect to the next. Just as the river mentioned above, thoughts begin with an original flow. Even though the thoughts are introduced to different feelings (happy or sad) and can at sometimes become disconnected, the thoughts still flow from one thought to the next.  For this week, I would like to look at the stringing of the mind and the mind’s musical flow.

I was inspired by the Clark and Deacon reading.  In the Clark reading, the “reason respecting flow” was mentioned. In short, the reason-respecting flow suggests the introduction of one thought breeds introductions of other thoughts and feelings (“sun->sunscreen->paradise”). To connect to the prompt, I tried to link the relation between the flow of thoughts and the sound of music. This made me wonder about the validity of the flow of thoughts and how they can be emotionally shifted when music is introduced.

For instance, right now when you hear any one of these songs, how do you feel? What do you think about? – Phil Collins -Red Red Wine – Welcome to the Jungle – Giving Up – Moonlight Sonata – Pop –  Bust the Windows


Or when you listen to music from Teddy Pendergrass, John Legend, or Barry White how does that change your emotions?

The examples listed demonstrate a wide variety of feelings. The songs stimulate anger, excitement, sadness, relaxation, etc. So I wonder how these feelings can be attached to music and how the music can activate these feelings and continue the flow of other thoughts. For instance, if a person is sad, and they play music that is upbeat, how can this change the flow? Also, music can change the flow and cause a mixed emotion.

Another example of the aroma of music could be an emotional attachment. When looking at music, often certain feelings are brought to the surface. According to the Deacon reading the certain words can bring other aspects. (“Figure 1.1” “stringing together words in a sentence leads the listener to bring together images in the mind”). The same could be said for music. By stringing together different instruments and voices and tones, different images could be created in the mind.

Every one has different reactions to music, some reactions could be created by thoughts and feelings. For instance one song could be connected to your first Kiss or first date. In the movie, “Silver Linings Playbook” the main character has a certain connection to the above song. The Stevie Wonder Classic was his wedding song. However, one day when he came home he found his wife with another man, the music that accompanied his wife’s lip-locking with another man was in fact his wedding song, the Stevie Wonder classic. Needless to say, the string of thoughts became tangled up and resulted in his mental breakdown.

To try to answer the question about combining music and a symbol a plethora of things could happen. Someone could have a nervous breakdown (“Silver Linings Playbook”), someone could be reminded of a happy moment. These strings create a tapestry of musical representations that are visible and invisible.

Respecting the flow in music

Respecting the flow from feelings to musical arrangement.

Finally, there is a connection between spoken word and the transition to song. Through this transition the flow of thoughts and emotions tries to be equally translated. This form of music is difficult to achieve because it takes time to learn how to channel one’s thoughts into another form of speech. By pouring out raw emotion into music, the artist respects the flow and a greater level of mastering of music is achieved.

In conclusion, the connection of music and symbolism is inextricably linked to the flow of language. Without the flow from one subject to the next and the continuous activation of thoughts, music would not be able to have a powerful impact. However, if music is built from thought, (which through this week’s lesson we can conclude that music is a product of the flow) then we can have meaningful emotional connections to music and “we’ll all float on ok”.

Work Cited:

Poetry, The Website, and Making Meaning in a Combinatorial Symbolic World

(1) consider a media artefact as an instance of a combinatorial meaning system (an artwork, a Website, a movie, music composition) with some features investigated in readings

An artefact inside an artefact

Building off last week’s concepts regarding language and symbolic cognition, I was able to relate a recent experience to the concepts of symbolic cognition and human meaning-making. Last week, I attended a live discussion event by Dr. Maya Angelou at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. Angelou is frequently referred to as “a poet, educator, historian, best-selling author, actress, playwright, civil-rights activist, producer and director” according to her official website (2013). I remember growing up with her work as a child, and also coming across her work throughout college.  After digesting this week’s readings, I found it relevant to examine her website, as a media artefact. This website allows individuals to interact with her metaphorical works in a drastically different means compared to 30+ years ago when Dr. Angelou was just as influential, but could only share her work through written text (books, poetic literature) and oral traditions (speeches and conversations). She still does this now, but her website is yet another outlet. Humans are constantly looking for ways to formulize meaning through all our media channels, and as we will see the website is basically a culmination of our ancestors’ histories and symbols that have accrued over time.

Angelou’s website is the epitome of how combinatorial meaning systems work and interact with humans today. As for nearly any website, key symbolic materials such as language (English words) visuals (videos, photos, graphic designs), sound (from the videos) are presented in an orderly fashion on Angelou’s website. To the majority of users, the resources make sense because they follow proper sentence structures like “Welcome to Maya Angelou’s Official Site”. According to Deacon (1998, p.98) “creating a larger sentence in a human language cannot just be accomplished by stringing together more and more words. It requires use of hierarchic grammatical relationships, as well as syntactic tricks …” One could also argue, though, that this artefact (the website) follows a certain grammatical/syntactical flow in the form of media content just described. The videos, text, images are not arbitrarily placed on one immeasurable page; instead there is a central organization and layout of media intended to appeal to users.  This example of her website appears to follow Clark’s (2001) definitions of syntactic and semantic properties [1].

What Maya Angelou is primarily known for is her poetry, and not her website. Nevertheless, her website bears weight because other artefacts (her poems, books, interviews) are placed or inserted “on” this seemingly grandiose artefact. In Renfrew’s (1999) view, artefacts have critical roles both symbolic and practical for humans. Considering just her poetic work, the terms ‘symbolism’ and ‘metaphor’ are often associated with poetry. For Wong (2005), symbolism can be regarded as “the invention of external storage of information – whether in jewelry, art, language or tools” which dates back to the evolutionary period (p.89).  Angelou’s poetry indeed holds symbolic power in the form of literature, but also as an art form and tool she uses to express her thoughts, beliefs, and experiences.

One of Angelou’s famous works

Furthermore, Angelou’s form of language is primarily metaphorical. Lakoff (2006) describes metaphors as “instances of novel poetic language in which words…are not used in their normal everyday sense” (p. 185).  Taking a look at one of Angelou’s most famous poem  I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings it is possible to apply Lakoff’s contemporary theory and conceptual framework surrounding metaphors, just like he did with the love poem that stated ‘Look how far we’ve come/ It’s been a long, bumpy road/ We can’t turn back now.” (p.189)

         This poem follows similar metaphorical patterns of ‘improper’ syntax (“on the back of the wind/ and floats downstream”) but makes complete metaphorical sense in the eyes of many poets or less syntax-focused individuals. I agree with Lakoff’s point that “the metaphor is not just a matter of language, but of thought and reason” (p.192) and that language takes a backseat in these instances. Here, Angelou’s website could perhaps be seen as a depository of information that allows for the combination of multiple artefact styles. Another relevant point that can relate to the artefact of Angelou’s website is the growing field of cognitive science. If the theory of ‘distributed cognition’ from Hollan et al. (2000) is applied to this case of media artefacts, it leaves room for new insights about the unique field of interface-centered technology. The distributed cognition theory basically implies that there is a need to understand the interaction between technologies and people, furthermore stating:

            “Digital objects can encode information about their history of use. By recording the interaction events associated with use of digital objects (e.g., reports, forms, source code, manual pages, email, spreadsheets) it becomes possible to display graphical abstractions of the accrued histories as parts of the objects themselves” (Hollan et al., p.187, emphasis added) 

A user can explore her history through the artefact (website)

Hollan et. al (p.187) provides the opportunity to try and apply Angelou’s website and poetry to this inquiry. A website can serve as a vast depository for history and as a projector of constantly revolving information. Once put on the website, Angelou’s poetry (her metaphorical language) transforms into a digital object. Once a tangible artefact, it is now an artefact comprised of computing numbers and codes. But the end user (the person who reads her poems through a computer screen) does not need to decode the artefact in a drastically different way than before – it can still be read, analyzed, copied, etc., but in slightly different measures. No matter which environment the artefact is positioned, the “highly-enriched digital” object (p.188) is an overarching representation of her poetic ability and history. What researchers mustn’t do, according to Hollan et al., is neglect the fact that culture and cognition studies should not be separated. If someone is trying to grasp how a user interprets the poetic artefact via a second artefact (a website), culture (which is comprised of person’s history, language, customs, etc) may very well influence their cognitive functions and abilities to create symbolic systems of meaning. Some can only wonder what the Internet will look like ten to twenty years from now, but I foresee higher levels of interaction through the “graphical abstractions” between humans and media artefacts


[1] Clark defines Semantic properties as “the ‘meaning involving’ properties of words, sentences, and internal representations,” and Syntactic properties  as “nonsemantic properties of, e.g., written or spoken words, or of any kinds of inscriptions of meaningful items” p.10,



Clark, Andy. Mindware: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Cognitive Science. New York:          Oxford University Press, 2001.

Deacon, Terrence W.  The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain.        New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998.

Hollan, James, Edwin Hutchins, and David Kirsh. “Distributed Cognition: Toward a New   Foundation for Human-computer Interaction Research.” ACM Transactions, Computer- Human Interaction 7, no. 2 (June 2000): 174-196.

Lakoff, George. “Conceptual Metaphor.” Excerpt from Geeraerts, Dirk, ed. Cognitive Linguistics:            Basic Readings. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 2006.

“Maya Angelou.” Maya Angelou, The Official Website. Accessed 4.      Feb 2013.

Renfrew, Colin.  “Mind and Matter: Cognitive Archaeology and External Symbolic Storage.” In     Cognition and Material Culture: The Archaeology of Symbolic Storage, edited by Colin     Renfrew, 1-6. Cambridge, UK: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, 1999.

Wong, Kate. “The Morning of the Modern Mind: Symbolic Culture.” Scientific American 292, no. 6 (June 2005)

Welcome to Prof. Martin Irvine’s seminar site

This is the site devoted to the seminar Media Theory and Digital Culture (Spring 2013) in the Communication, Culture, and Technology Program at Georgetown University.

The site is open for guest viewing and reading. Comments and questions can be sent to Professor Martin Irvine (

The main Web syllabus page is here, and Martin Irvine’s Georgetown home page, with links to courses, lecture notes, and online content, is here.