Category Archives: Week 6: Intro Semiotics

week six: semiotics and media

Our symbolic encyclopedia enables us to comprehend the narratives we  are exposed to in the media. One great example of a website that  collects and organizes this information is TV Tropes. Merriam Webster  defines a trope as “a common or overused theme or device.” Though many  think of tropes as cliches, the meanings tropes convey enable us to  decode what we are presented with. A specific example we can use to  dissect semiotics in television is the show Suits.

In the video reel above, one can view the scenes that set up Harvey (an attorney known as the “best closer in the city”) as “the Ace” and Louis (his peer who looks up to Harvey with a mix of respect, repulsion, and envy) as “the anti-Villain.”  Though a viewer may be unfamiliar with the terms used to classify these  tropes, their prior experience with these symbols enables them to  comprehend the setup of the show. Meanwhile, it is clear that Mike (an  associate) is supposed to be Harvey’s protege, and a viewer can guess  that Harvey will be a kind of “Big Brother Mentor” to Mike.

In  this way, semiotics serve as a method of communication, as the symbols  we use to encode a specific message into a medium are decoded by the  viewer, enabling him to receive the message transmitted. Chandler  expands on this idea in Semiotics for Beginners. One point he  made which I found particularly interesting was the idea of transparency  as it relates to our awareness of tropes. Chandler quotes Lakoff and  Johnson is saying that: “However, much of the time- outside of ‘poetic’  contexts- we use or encounter many figures of speech without really  noticing them- they retreat to transparency’. Such transparency tends to  anaesthetize us to the way in which the culturally available stock of  tropes acts as an anchor linking us to the dominant views of thinking  within our society” (Lakoff and Johnson 1980).  When we as viewers are  introduced to these characters, not only are we reading them based on  their portrayal, but we are also taking their race, gender, and age into  account on a more subconscious level and integrating the cultural  hierarchy into our analysis/perception of the protagonists. In the case  of Suits, Louis would also be referred to as “the underdog”  when  it comes to the senior lawyers at the firm. Two of the three main  female characters star in “serving” roles (ex. a secretary and a  paralegal), and it is inferred that there are hints of romantic history  between the women and their male counterparts. These tropes are so  heavily embedded into our culture (and even more specifically, the  symbols that occur within a coporate office environment) that to state  them feels uncomfortable– they exist transparently.

It’s  interesting to note that the title of the show is also a metaphor  referring to both “lawsuits” and the suits that the gentlemen wear on  the show (many references are made to suits [i.e. the article of  clothing] in the first season). Semiotics shapes our lives from the way we make meanings to interact and communicate with one another, to the way we are entertained and advertised to.
Works Cited

Chandler,  Daniel. “Semiotics for Beginners.” Semiotics for Beginners. N.p., n.d.  Web.

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.


The Graphical User Interface

By: Somaiya Sibai

In this digital, age people are becoming more and more inseparable from electronic devices that they increasingly rely on for almost every function and task. We depend on mobile phones, tablets, computers, and other devices, along with thousands of applications and software to facilitate numerous daily activities and solve problems. This growing relationship between people and devices has been greatly facilitated by the graphical user interface (GUI).

The GUI can be considered as a language, a set of symbols, and a form of communication between human and machine. It consists of graphic, pictorial symbols that represent commands. Those pictorial symbols serve as a universal language that can be understood by almost anyone. They are laid out in the form of menus, tables, or buttons, in a way that facilitates working the software efficiently. Thanks to this, most people find it extremely easy to operate certain software or applications without any prior training or instruction. Many people self-instruct themselves on how to operate certain programs through trial and error, by experimenting with different buttons do and associating them with occurring actions. Through experience and continuous usage, it becomes easy for users to identify and predict what commands each icon does.  The symbols in a GUI can be thought of as “visual metaphors” that take the place of text commands. We “read” those symbols like we do for words. We call the left-pointing arrow in an Internet browser the “back” button rather than the “arrow” button, and the looking glass button is universally interpreted as “search” rather than “looking glass”.

In Peirce’s concept of the sign, he identifies three classes of signs, the icons, indices, and symbols. He defines icons as being similar to and resembling to the semiotic object physically, and an index as a sign that interrelates its their semiotic objects through either actual or physical imagined connection, while symbols are not physically related to the actual semiotic object, but rather create a certain association in the viewer, such as a corporate logo which does not resemble the signified corporate in any way but immediately reminds the viewer of it, and even emotions and perceptions they have towards that corporation just by seeing the logo. In the GUI, all three of those types are present. Some signs are icons, in that they physically resemble their respective commands or associated programs – for instance the icons of Mac applications like notes, calendar, and address book. Other signs are indices, they represent their function in a metaphoric sense, like the looking glass example mentioned above, and like the scissors symbol that stands for the “cut” command. Others are symbols, such as the logos of software and applications, which we have learned to recognize instantly, like the compass logo of the Safari browser.

How many of those signs can you recognize?

The Semiotics of Sequential Art

The Semiotics of Sequential Art
by Sara Levine

Semiotic analysis provides an essential toolkit for conducting a close study of cultural products such as advertisements, film, photographs, and so on. Daniel Chandler’s Semiotics for Beginners, for example, contains an entire arsenal of concepts and ideas that can be applied to a number of cultural forms and genres. This application of semiotic technique may reveal what is denoted and connoted by the work, and messages that are intentionally and unintentionally communicated to the audience. So, how do we study the comic book art form through semiotics? The combination of text and images is a little overwhelming at first. However, this medium may seem less intimidating with the help of Scott McCloud and our semiotic toolkit.

Here is the selection I have chosen for this particular semiotic study:

It is a page taken from Greg Rucka and Matthew Southworth’s Stumptown series, published by Oni Press.

When we look at the page as a whole, the layout may be the most noticeable aspect. American comics have their own code for the layout of a page. This code dictates that the viewer read panels from left to right, and top to bottom. Additionally, most comics, as Scott McCloud points out in Understanding Comics, contain “gutters.” Gutters break up panels using borderlines around the images.

Southworth and Rucka seem to have broken away from this formatting technique. The syntagmatic structure of the panels is confusing at first, and if the viewer attempts to read from left to right and top to bottom the page wouldn’t make much sense. However, if she or he had been reading the comic book from the beginning then she or he would have started reading the page with it tilted 90 degrees clockwise. Then the reader would follow the panels from left to right until the second row of panels, at which point she or he would tilt the page 90 degrees counterclockwise. What is missing from the layout of the page? Paradigmatically speaking, there are no gutters or borderlines for the panels. In addition, the panels are all overlapping one another. The denoted message of these layout changes might signify Southworth’s particular art style, or quicker pacing in a high stakes car chase scene. However, there is an underlying connotative message here as well in regards to how the creators would like the audience to look at the page. It could be assumed that this connotation has something to do with how comic books as an art form should or could be read.

Positioning within Frame/Perspective
Composition within panels is another important aspect of the comic book art form. I won’t analyze every single panel composition here, but there are a couple of notable examples.

  1. The largest panel depicting the car chase, in which two cars and the top of a police car are visible, utilizes comic book code in the form of motion lines. Motion lines denote speed to a comic book reader. The connotations of this panel may include the placement of Dex’s (our main character) car. She is caught between fleeing the police force and pursuing the villains. This is also one of her dilemmas in the narrative of the story. It is a plotline usually associated with the detective genre.

  1. Another signifier throughout the panels on this page is perspective. The smaller panels lining the right side of the page may be the equivalent of quick cuts in a movie. There is a close-up of Dex’s confident, smiling face, a panel from the perspective of the villains’ truck, an even smaller one of Dex and Mim’s horror-filled gazes, and finally the two cars colliding. These jumps between perspectives denote the sequence of events, but beyond that they also build tension for the reader. They are meant to be read in quick succession, and show only quick glimpses of a moment in time.

Color/Art style
Color and art style can also function as signifiers to comic book readers. Some comic books are not printed in color, but Stumptown is awash with murky coloring. There are a lot of browns and grays on this page. The signified interpretation may at first seem like a style choice on the part of Southworth, but a connoted interpretation may have something to do with how Rucka and Southworth wanted to depict Dex’s world. Perhaps this is a nod to Portland (where Stumptown is loosely based on), or maybe Rucka wanted a grungy look that would complete the feel of a PI genre story. Another color choice that creators make are codes for certain characters. Superhero comics use these codes over many years for a certain character (i.e. Superman is associated with red and blue, Batman with black, etc.) Why red for the villains’ truck? Why a truck instead of any other car? The same could be asked of Dex’s car of choice. The deep magenta of the truck seems complementary to Dex’s green car. Consequently, perhaps the depiction of these two juxtaposed against each other serves to highlight the conflict between the characters driving the vehicles.

Text/Art Relationship
The separate symbolic meanings of text and image take on new meaning when they interact. There is more art than text on this particular page, but the interaction between text and artwork is vitally important to any comic book page. Scott McCloud categorizes several different types of text-image interactions. This list includes word specific, picture specific, additive, parallel, montage, and interdependent combinations. This page might fall under additive because the text serves as supplementary dialogue to the action unfolding on the page. Additionally, Southworth and Rucka actually tilt the text and word balloons along with the images in order to signify to readers how they should follow the story down the page. However, there may be another, connoted message involved in the tilted word balloon. I believe that this message is related to the very physical interaction that the reader is having with the medium. The reader is moving the images and helping to create the action on the page rather than simply staring at the panels. Rucka and Southworth intentionally tilt that speech bubble in order to augment the experience of tilting the page.

Intratextuality and Intertextuality
There are a few instances of intratextuality and intertextuality on this page as well. There is intratextuality in the knowledge a reader may or may not possess about how to read this page. A reader would not know to tilt the page unless she or he had been reading this comic book from the first page instead of opening it up to the current selection. An element of intertextuality remains buried in the narrative of the story. Greg Rucka ends every issue with a brief discussion of the role of the private investigator (PI) in American crime stories. He writes about how he constructed this story and its characters with the PI genre in mind, and makes references to other famous PI genre writers such as Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. Only a reader who is well-versed in the code associated with the PI genre may appreciate all of Rucka’s references.

The overall denotative message to the audience is that they are reading a car chase scene in which Dex is attempting to pursue the story’s villains while being trailed by the police. The argument can be made that this comic book also serves as a connotation referring to the American PI genre of storytelling. Perhaps that message may be about exploring the best elements of the genre with a woman in the lead role instead of the usual Sam Spade character. However, I do not think that this page is completely representative of that message. Instead, I would like to focus on the interaction between the reader and this selection. Most of the notable signifiers in this selection are related to the physical interaction that the reader has with this book. The act of reading any comic book is an interpretive and interactive experience. However, this page (and several others throughout this issue) highlights the physical work that a reader must engage with in order to continue the story. Perhaps this movement signifies Rucka’s intention of connecting the reader with the story in a visceral manner. The turning of the book mimics the turning of the wheel as Dex drives circles around the villains in the red truck. The action seems more real to the reader if she or he are somehow involved. The majority of this book is the car chase scene, and so turning the book breaks up what could be monotonous action shots. There may be another connotation about comic books in contrast with digital copies and web comics. I am not sure how this page would be read on the iPad, but it doesn’t seem to evoke the same experience as holding the comic book pages in the reader’s hands and turning it along with the story. Interaction with a screen showing moving images in a comic is very different than interacting with the physical comic book medium.


Bal, Mieke. “Semiotics for Beginners.” On Meaning-making: Essays in Semiotics. Sonoma, CA: Polebridge, 1994. N. pag. Print.

Chandler, Daniel. “Semiotics for Beginners.” Semiotics for Beginners. N.p., n.d. Web. <>.

Cobley, Paul. “Peirce’s Concept of the Sign.” The Routledge Companion to Semiotics and Linguistics. London: Routledge, 2001. N. pag. Print.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics. [Northampton, MA]: Kitchen Sink, 1993. Print.

Peirce, Charles S., Nathan Houser, and Christian J. W. Kloesel. “What Is a Sign.” The Essential Peirce: Selected Philosophical Writings. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1992. N. pag. Print.

Rucka, Greg, and Matthew Southworth. “The Case of the Baby in the Velvet Case Issue #4.” Comic Book. Stumptown. N.p.: Oni, n.d. Print.

Saussure, Ferdinand De. “On the Nature of the Linguistic Sign.” Course in General Linguistics. New York: Philosophical Library, 1959. N. pag. Print.

How Many Books/Films does One have to Read/Watch before Starting to Understand Comics

Yiran Sun

According to Bal, signs only emerge in relation to other previously produced signs (7). This is perfectly evident in the case of comics, where signs recognized can always be traced to other semiotic systems such as film, photography, and history. This week I am going to analyze one scene from the comic The Ravages of Time by Chen Mou. This is the part in which Lv Bu tries to send his daughter to marry Yuan Shu’s son for alliance but loses her in the breakthrough battle. Besides background information obtained from earlier chapters, there are still two major layers in understanding this particular sequence, one is what some would call comic literacy, and the other is heavily based on prior knowledge of Chinese culture.

First of all, just by look at the thumbnail pictures, one would be able to tell that this sequence consists of two parts: the flashback (where the background outside frame panels is black) and the “now” (where the background is white). Here it is the difference that yields the information. The same practice can also be seen in films, where flashbacks are most often accompanied by noticeable special effects such as a vignette or a different color theme. Even if readers do not immediately recognize this, either because they were less familiar with the vocabulary, or simply because they read page by page so they can not detect the difference right away, there is still another clue for understanding the time change: the tempo. While the flashback consists of entirely static shots, the “now” is filled with action. Such sense of movement is conveyed both through the use of motion lines and Dutch angle shots. The use of motion lines (McCloud 110) came from photography, where an image would appear blurred when the shutter speed is not fast enough. This technique has been brought to an extreme by Japanese artists in the late 60s and is widely used across the globe. Dutch angle shots, or canted angle shots, on the other hand, is a technique from cinematography of showing the image as tilted to one side. It is normally used to create tension. Here, the author has managed to bring even more tension to it by adding slanted panel frames on top of canted images (Such as in page 9; this is relatively rare in Chen Mou’s work).

Now let’s look more closely at the images themselves. Chen Mou employs a style that bears greater resemblance to reality than most Asian comics. Such a style does not only have aesthetic meaning, but also decides how much information is contained in the images. The hotter (McLuhan)/more realistic the style, the lesser a reader will be able to participate in it. However, in this case its role as indices (Peirce) becomes more prominent. For example, let’s look at the first two panel frames on page 1. From the images alone, we can infer that this part of story happens in ancient East Asia (from the first panel), and probably involves either torture or surgery (second panel). Now imagine if the first panel was a stick figure of a house and the second one extremely abstract lines of knives and needles with no detail for the blood: there would be too many possibilities and thus no useful information. (If an artist chooses that style, it is usually for the purpose of creating intentional ambiguity.)

However, this level of interpretation demands a combination of recognition, connection and previous knowledge (Bal 12). A detailed image would only reveal more information when the reader has certain culture backgrounds (Chinese culture in this case, but it can also be things like otaku culture or sci-fi culture). Let’s now take a look at page 2. Since Chen Mou is not particularly concerned with historical accuracy, let’s suppose we do not know that this story is based on the history of the Three Kingdoms period, and only try to decode the information encrypted in this image alone. With the background, again, the reader can tell this is based in ancient East Asia. From the clothing on the standing man on frame-right, we can infer that the story is set in ancient China. Then we move onto the man sitting in the middle. He’s muscular, his clothes are half off, there’s blood all over his body, and there’s an arrow in his left arm or upper left back. From these, combined with what we’ve been used to seeing from war movies (but not documentaries), we can deduct that he has just came back from a battle. And from the way he sits, with his back straight and hand on his knee, we draw from our daily experiences and think he is a man with dignity and probably some social status. Combining this with the last clue of battlefield, we make a guess that he is some kind of a general. For someone familiar with Chinese culture, the image of a general with an arrow in his arm would remind us of the story of Guan Yu, who’s been praised for not showing fear when the doctor took out a poisoned arrow from his arm. However, we would also know that this man is not Guan, because he does not have the signature long beard. In fact, his hair is kept in a way completely different from the mainstream custom (see the standing man), that we can see a hint of barbarism on him.

The interpretation can go on and on, and this is not yet to count in the words accompanying these images. Yet these all happen almost instantaneously without the reader noticing it. Our minds are amazingly good at recognizing patterns, making associations and drawing on previous knowledge in a flash of second. However, without pre-established, widely shared semiotic systems, the author would never be able to convey any useful information to the reader, and the readers would have rather difficult times with interpretations, while never able to make sure if we indeed understood the meanings.


Bal, M. (1994). On Meaning-Making: Essays in Semiotics. Sonoma, CA: Polebridge Press.
Chen, M. (2008). The Ravages of Time, Volume 30. Taipei: Dong Li Publications. Translated by Wonderland Scanning Group. Retrieved at
McCloud, S. (1993). Understanding Comics. New York: Paradox Press.
McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding Media, the Extensions of Man.
Peirce, C. S. (1998). Essential Pierce: Selected Philosophical Writings (1893-1913). Edited by Nathan H., Christian J. W. K., & Peirce Edition Project. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Kicking the Can by Creating Meaning with Symbols

In week four, I found a public service announcement (PSA) that can serve as the quintessential example of our symbolic faculties being compelled in the way that reinforced Deacon’s concept of the we as symbolic species. This week however, I find the same PSA to be just as useful as an example to deconstruct a media artifact in such a way that would pinpoint de Saussure’s and Peirce’s concepts of semiotics. According to de Saussure, language as a product of society is a set of signs that find meaning because of a consensus on the connection between the signifier (what represents) and the the signified (what is being represented). This meaning-making through signs is further conceptualized by Peirce as he distinguishes three types of signs. The icon signifies through imitating and resembling the signified e.g. the photograph. The index signifies through indicating and in relation to the signified i.e. a map indicates a place in the world, and a clock indicates the time of day. Finally, the symbol signifies through denotation and is connected to the signified only through a mind that associates the signifier to the signified e.g. a wedding ring.

The PSA in question is called Kicking the Can. Using the medium of television, this PSA is obviously iconic as it does resemble what it wants to resemble: A man being harassed by snuff. The PSA is also highly indexical in that it is a genre that indicates a didactic nature and public good. But it is only through this PSA’s symbolism that we really get to the insightful meaning-making and we discover that almost everything about the PSA is symbolic and contributes to the complete meaning of the PSA. The woman dressed in snuff is symbolic of snuff itself and the way she nags the man is symbolic of how snuff is bad for one’s health and livelihood. Without this denotation, the whole point and meaning of the PSA would not be taken or understood. And we see that all the symbols in this PSA work together to create this meaning.

The background music is an up-tempo, classical, symphony that is focused on a commanding trumpet beat. This is akin to the music usually used in blockbuster adventure movies in scenes where the protagonist/hero is in the middle of an epic battle or going through obstacles. The way the audio dialogue uses audio words is symbolic as well. ‘You’ by ‘Nicki’, the woman dressed as snuff, refers to the baseball player she is nagging. Her use of ‘me’ and ‘I’ though she is snuff establishes the metaphor. The most blatant symbol is the Nicki character who is a woman dressed as snuff and nagging the man dressed in baseball gear as if she were his annoying and persistent ex-lover or ex-girlfriend that he is trying to avoid and ignore with all his might.

Her name ‘Nicki’ is probably a personification of Nicotine, an addictive substance found in smokeless tobacco. Her merits that she uses to plead for him to come back to her are symptoms of snuff-use but conveyed in the language of an ex-lover’s platitudes: ‘We’d always be together’, ‘we have a commitment’ regarding the addictiveness of snuff; ‘You’ll never get through the game without your little Nicki’ regarding the reliance on snuff users have; ‘If you ignore me, I’ll play mind games with you’ regarding the withdrawal mental symptoms of quitting smokeless tobacco; and ‘Make your heart pump’ regarding the high from snuff. There are two characters, a male and a female, who seem to have had a history of an intimate relationship that has recently been severed. The man is dressed for playing baseball and seems intent in going to his game. He never utters a word or attempts to utter one, establishing the fact that he is trying to ignore the female and that she is not an ex-lover, but an ex-addiction: snuff, which is an inanimate object. However, the woman that seems to be his ex-girlfriend intercepts him alone on the baseball field as he parks there and she starts nagging him trying in vain to get his attention. This woman’s name is Nicki (see metaphors). She is also dressed up as a giant, green, snuff can labeled as ‘Snuff: Smokeless Tobacco’ akin to a mascot costume common to American sports events. Because she cannot be identified by a human face, she becomes snuff and it is thus understood that she is not an ex-lover but snuff itself, which is compared to a nagging ex-lover by the PSA. The word ‘nagging’ is a very apt word to use in order to describe Nicki’s voice- it is incredibly high-pitched, nasal, whiny, and she speaks very quickly and pleadingly. Never is there any real form of a woman or snuff at face value shown.

When we combine our symbolic resources i.e. language, audio, visual, etc., we end up with a media artifact that is laden with symbols, or signifiers, that are the sources of meaning-making as de Saussure and Peirce would posit- all that create the meaning in this PSA that snuff is bad.

The crouching culture and hidden emotion in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Wanyu Zheng

Being a Chinese director who’s been in the United States for many years, Ang Lee always seeks to present his understanding of Eastern culture with the comparison of Western culture: His Oscar winning film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is one. In my perspective, perhaps derived from Zhuang Zi, an ancient Taoist philosopher in China, Ancient Eastern culture is collectivism that values endurance and self-control, seeking some kind of infinite realm; Western culture is more of individualism that values courage and determination, seeking freedom and pleasure. The conflict between these two culture systems are embodied in Ang Lee’s film, and his interpretation of this conflict is conveyed by the signs and symbols that lies in the image and music of the film.

The story is around a stolen sword and several warriors. Li, a great warrior famous throughout Qing China decides to retire to the mountains. He asks Shu, the un-conceded love of his life to bring his treasured sword, the Green Destiny to an old friend. However, the sword is soon stolen by a mysterious assassin. All these lead to a teenage nobleman’s daughter, Yu, who is a martial artist at the crossroads of her life. In the clip below, Li and Yu are fighting in a bamboo forest, and the two relatively stands for two characters: the tranquil, repressed Eastern culture and the freedom seeking Western culture. 

In this bamboo-fight sequence, Li can be viewed as a symbol of the Eastern wisdom, which emphasizes subduing the activity with serenity. Li always stands on the top of the bamboo forest and rides the wave, even if Yu presses the bamboo really hard, Li never shakes but stands firm, waiting for the right time to rebound. The bright green color of the bamboo can also be interpreted as a symbol of the hidden emotion stirring inside these two characters: Li brings peace and calm to Yu’s heart as well as Yu affects Li with her courage and passion. The shots are full of panorama and wide, and the fighting scenes are not fierce but seem to be slow. These all show a special perspective from the director and certain emotions he wishes to convey through the film. Thus, the meaning of the film title Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon superficially stands for the powerful warriors and swordsmen in the film, but in fact appears to be the repressive emotion of each character, whose changes push the story forward.

Whether I am right in making such multi-layered interpretation might be explained in Eco’s model of the cultural encyclopedia: “the meaning of something is not a matter “correct” or “incorrect” interpretations, but rather an instance of an interpreter’s competence in engaging the cultural encyclopedia, the whole repertoire of symbolic resources available and known to a culture.” (Irvine, 24) My interpretation is actually a combination of sign and interpretation – Chinese swordsmen fly over the bamboos – which focuses on the semiotic process and historical continuity at the social and cultural level.

According to Peirce’s theory, the image of bamboo in the film is mere a sign and its indication of Chinese culture makes it a symbol, but if I want to combine the explicit meaning of bamboo with Ang Lee’s personal interpretation in the film like bamboo means emotion, the whole meaning making process will become much complicated than before. These symbols are so dynamic in human brain. “We think only in signs. These mental signs are of mixed nature; the symbol-parts of them are called concepts.” (Peirce, 10) Perhaps Peirce’s classic observation is the reason why a bamboo may become a representative of a culture, a fight can stand for the conflict between Eastern and Western cultures, and a film could not only show Eastern philosophy, but also the flows of hidden emotions that touch every audience across cultural barriers.

Movie Trailer:


C. S. Peirce, “What is a Sign,” excerpt from Peirce, Charles S. Essential Pierce: Selected Philosophical Writings (1893-1913). Edited by Nathan Houser, Christian J. W. Kloesel, and Peirce Edition Project. Vol. 2. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1998.

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.

Mieke Bal, “Semiotics for Beginners,” from Mieke Bal, On Meaning-Making: Essays in Semiotics. Sonoma, CA: Polebridge Press, 1994., Film Review of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,, visited on Feb. 2013, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon(2000),, visited on Feb. 2013

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-.

Can’t Miss the Atomic Bomb

By Catherine Cromer                                                                                                                          The concept of music videos in relation to semiotics is an interesting case study as the visual signs provide meaning to the music that may not have previously perceived by the listener. The lyrics to a song are subjective in that even though a listener understands the words, what the listener identifies the words with can take a different meaning or symbolize different events for every person. Songs have different meanings to different people and even when all people can cognitively make sense of the lyrics linguistically/grammatically and we can comprehend it in the semiosphere, it is not possible for anyone to interpret the song through the same mediation of meaning. When a music video is thrown into the fray, it presents a infinite slew of signs and symbols as structured by the songwriter/band and video director, and meaning making in this context can is dependent not only on easily interpreted signs, but also on the structure of interpretation by the viewer based on prior social and cultural experience. For instance, the song and music video for the The Killers single “Miss Atomic Bomb” relays a number of signs and metaphors through it’s name and lyrics alone. Looking at the segment of lyrics below, including the song title, there are numerous linguistic signs and metaphors for the listener to interpret.

Miss Atomic Bomb
Making out we’ve got the radio on
You’re gonna miss me when I’m gone
You’re gonna miss me when I’m gone

In the instance “Miss Atomic Bomb,” the use of the understood title of Miss typically as a young single female is a signifier for Atomic Bomb, turning it into the signified concept of a person, one who has a dramatic and explosive effect on the singer.

Racing shadows in the moonlight
We’re taking chances on a hot night
And for a second there we’d won
Yeah we were innocent and young

Adding to this, we can look at Beneviste’s notion of the duality of the individual and the other and the time and reality that the discourse represent. The use of I, you, and we help to establish the transition between past and present and are symbolic forms of narrative relating the point of view of the singer that is familiar to listeners from the old boy meets girl, star-crossed lovers genre.

The dust cloud has settled, and my eyes are clear
But sometimes in dreams of impact I still hear
Miss Atomic Bomb, I’m standing here
Sweat on my skin
And this love that I’ve cradled
Is wearing thin (Miss Atomic Bomb)
But I’m standing here and you’re too late
Your shock-wave whisper has sealed your fate

This last verse uses the symbolism of the metaphor Miss Atomic Bomb to create further meaning indicating a less-than happen ending in the singers memory. Words such as impact, shock-wave and dust-cloud have sociocultural connotation when interpreted under the context of the words “atomic bomb” in creating a devastating and irreversible effect. Using Pierce’s theory of first, second and thirdness, first the words begin abstractly as a group of letters strung together. Second, the words are recognized and a perceived meaning of each word is understood. Third, the possibility of the meaning of the lyrics takes place in each individuals understanding of the mediation between the words.

In my own personal experience, my interpretation of the song changed drastically once I watched the music video and learned about the meaning imposed by the The Killers in relation to their other music. The semiotics involved in the visual aspects of the video alone provide infinite amounts of signs to be deciphered.

The Killers-Miss Atomic Bomb-Battle Born 2012

This video allows for a lot of discussion on the different forms of mediation that communicate meaning in the video. Several dualities present themselves such as the switch between past and present, the transition between animation and real-life and the the juxtaposition between the  world of the animation and desolate desert landscape of the real-world. There are several instances of icon, indexes and symbols that give new meaning-making in the video, such as the symbolic nature of the diamond ring as sign for engagement and love, the image of the spinning clock to indicate the passage of time. The way in which we interpret the signs whether through Peirce’s model or Saussure’s model, allow us to understand the story of music video even if we turned off the sound by recognizing the different segmentation of the video, one that is very familiar to our culture of stories of lost loves or Romeo & Juliet scenarios. The combination of song and video propose a new meaning for the song and a new way for watchers/listeners to interpret it, or to combine their previous interpretation of the song with the symbols presented in the music video.

To add one more note of complexity to the semiosis of “Miss Atomic Bomb,” the video is a follow-up to the single “Mr.Brightside” that the The Killers released on their first album in 2004. The meaning making behind this video and the continuation of its story in “Miss Atomic Bomb” provide a whole new segment to analyze. 

The Killers-Mr. Brightside-Hot Fuss 2004

Meaning-Making in jùjú Music

Meaning-Making in jùjú Music

The topics of meaning making, sign systems and semiotics related to media theory can relate to a number of everyday human encounters, including music. Music has proven to be an inter-relatable subject in the field of media theory, and I found it useful to analyze a different style of music (that we have not talked about yet) with the idea of the ‘semiosphere,’ and theories of de Saussure and C.S. Pierce. The music of King Sunny Adé may not be a household name, but his music reveals distinct cultural values enmeshed with linguistics and signs.

King Sunny Adé of Nigeria is known as an influential “pioneer of modern world music” specifically for his Yoruba jùjú music (“King Sunny Adé”). Jùjú music is characterized by its emphasis on drums and the term literally means “throwing” or “something being thrown” in Yoruba language. (“Jùjú Music”). For many Nigerian artists and musicians, music is a performance and a way of life. One of his works that can be analyzed in a meaning-making context is “Suku Suku Bam Bam.”

I like to describe Adé’s music as soothing and mellow, with a familiar flow of drum beats and guitar strums comparable to the Caribbean or Jamaican music. Thinking of how Adé created meaning behind his music, the idea of the semiosphere (the socialness of humans and our desire for meaning making, which occurs in interconnected systems) can apply (Irvine). When Adé made this musical artefact, chances are he was influenced by other “second order systems” such as literature, art and other music (Irvine p.12)  instead of being inspired in an isolated state.

Language is yet another major influencer for media-related processes, and is required to make music. De Sassure took a technical approach by defining language (making clear distinctions on what is not language and what is speech ) and arguing that language is not only a social institution but “…a system of signs that express ideas” (p.15). Music, then is just an extension of language and speech (once again proving the interconnectedness) of how people can express ideas. Using de Saussure’s Place of Language in the Facts of Speech concept, he claims that the act of language “…requires the presence of at least two persons; that is the minimum number necessary to complete the circuit.” (p.11).

de Saussure

If that is the case, a similar approach can be applied to music. For meaning to be transferred, there needs to be at least another person to receive the information. Thus music, like language is “the social side of speech,” to use de Saussure’s terms (p.14). Furthermore, making music for oneself defeats the purpose of sharing information. One must keep in mind though, that when it comes to music, the outputs are so fragmented through the mediaspehere (videos, live performances, mp3s, etc.,) there it is hard to have a true 1:1 conversation or simultaneous circuitous response with the musician at any time. As popular as King Sunny Adé’s music may be lyrics, translations and significant scholarly review of his work is hard to come by. This leaves his audience to fully interpret his music and decipher what kinds of meaning he wanted to get across. As this YouTube user writes: KSA (King Sunny Adé ) “Is the ultimate Yoruba linguist, always using verbs and proverbs to instruct.”

This comment on YouTube shows how meaning-making rests heavily on signs and symbols, which all find their place in mediums such as the Internet. According to C.S. Pierce, there are three kinds of signs: likeness, indications, and symbols (p.5). Receivers of Adé’s linguistic metaphors (aka his music) can show their likeness by imitation such as commenting on his work or doing covers of his music. Pierce defines indications as a way of illustrating things through a physical means (p.5). As initially described, the unique guitar riffs and percussions are indicators of Adé’s music that imply “this is Adé’s music!” to gain the attention of people. Lastly, symbols are of importance because meaning comes from its use. Pierce gives the example of phrases, books and libraries. Just as the library is more than a building that holds books, music is more than the singing of words. King Sunny Adé’s music is a versatile symbol that varies in its use from person to person. It allows individuals to find their personal meaning (such as “I feel so connected to my heritage” or “I have discovered a new realm of music”) which is a constant process.

 Much more can be discussed about music and meaning making or music and symbolic systems – my goal was to see if I could uncover something new about how music can be a meaning-maker and relate to symbolic systems. If anything, this example proves how language (specifically linguistics) and individual meanings/representations of the world have social implications that unravel each time new issues are addressed.



C. S. Peirce, “What is a Sign,” excerpt from Peirce, Charles S. Essential Pierce: Selected Philosophical Writings (1893-1913). Edited by Nathan Houser, Christian J. W. Kloesel, and Peirce Edition Project. Vol. 2. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1998. 

Ferdinand de Saussure, extracts from Course in General Linguistics 

Irvine, “Introduction to Meaning Making, Symbolic Cognition, and Semiotics” Sections 1-4.

“Jùjú  Music.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 22 Nov 2012. Web. 19 Feb. 2013.

“King Sunny Ade.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 27 Jan 2013. Web. 19 Feb. 2013.


Meaning making and French Moustaches

by Alexis Hamann-Nazaroff

I am going to analyze a bit of my favorite movie, La Moustache, directed by Emmanuel Carrère.

First of all, the movie is French, in both language and production location.  For me, before I ever saw it, its French-ness was a sign that I would probably like it.  I’ve liked a lot of French movies in the past, and like all humans, my thoughts, my interpretations of signs are time-embedded: I use my past memories of enjoyment to anticipate meanings for future experiences.  French-ness likely does not have this same meaning for most viewers, however.  In fact, to an English-speaking American audience French-ness might be a sign that the film will be difficult or impossible for them to understand.  While subtitles might mitigate the language barrier, perhaps an American audience has other assumptions about French films –that they aren’t likely to end happily-ever-after, or that many of the characters will chain smoke, and La Moustache, merely by being French, may evoke these initial interpretations in American viewers.  The interpretations of La Moustache I suggest above were probably the furthest things from the mind of the movie’s makers.  Thus they are good examples of how a sign’s meaning does not exist statically in someone’s thought or in a DVD on the shelf at a video store.  Rather, as Mieke Bal explains in “On Meaning Making,” “signs and meaning are… contingent on the alliance to a social group” (19).  In the case of La Moustache, I am hypothesizing that an American group might make certain assumptions about things French.

The opening scene of the movie, as well as the first moments of the Youtube trailer, juxtaposes tension-building music with the image of a man shaving his moustache.  It is this contrast, combining a moment so mundane and music so dramatic, that holds our interest.  As this is part of a movie, we recognize, due to our knowledge of the medium, that this moment will lead us to action, conflict or drama.

The movie centers around Marc and his wife Agnès.  It starts in a seemingly simple, everyday moment, as Marc decides to shave off the moustache he’s worn since before he and Agnès ever met, and eagerly waits to find out how his wife will react when she sees him.  But she doesn’t react at all.  And then neither do his friends or his colleagues.  Marc’s new clean-shaven look should be a sign that evokes surprise, or at least mild interest in his friends and family, but instead, they don’t notice that anything is different; they fail to recognize it as a sign at all.  Marc does not know how to interpret his friends’ indifference he alternately thinks the indifference is a sign that his wife is playing a cruel joke on him, that he is going crazy and that he is in danger.

As his central thesis, Bal points out that, “a sign is not a thing, but a function, an event” (9).  One of the things that makes La Moustache a great movie (and a great example for thinking about semiotics) is that the central conflict centers around the sign-event and the meaning (or lack of meaning) in Marc’s shaven lip.