7.02 Semiotic Analysis: An Introduction.

In the late C19th the eccentric US philosopher C.S. Pierce had proposed a study of 'semiotics'. Soon after this the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure was giving his influential lectures at Geneva University in which he proposed a general study of meaning and the sign which he proposed to call 'semiology'. The students who attended these lectures went on to occupy chairs in prestigious universities across Europe just as visual media were exploding, driven by burgeoning consumerism.[1]

Semiotics is the study of the life and meaning of signs in societies. It can focus on verbal language or signs in other media. Signs consist of a sensory form and a mental concept that is evoked by it, (the signifier and signified). This duality refers to something else that may or may not have a concrete existence. To complicate this enormously the signified can become the object of a further sign (i.e. a signifier/signified) and so on, producing a chain of semiosis.

Signs are interconnected in our mind by all kinds of associations. These associations might be personal but more often they are shared by people who have a culture in common. Only rarely are they universal - the association of red with high temperature and so danger being one of the few examples. By studying the free associations that arise in our minds when we perceive a particular stimulus we can begin to map its meaning within a particular cultural context.

Saussurian ideas did not gain widespread currency until a series of articles were published by Roland Barthes in the Fifties. These essays were collected together as Mythologies and first published in Paris in 1957. They explored the complex layers of meanings carried by apparently insignificant features of everyday life and popular culture. Barthes continued to develop his theory that was mainly concerned with iconography.[2]

Barthe's work was followed by many other theorists who made contributions to a visual semiotic.[3] But these were broadly iconographic analyses and did not venture far into proposing a theory of rules of by which signs can be combined - in linguistic terms the syntagmatic relations.

A central problem in linguistics seems to be the idea of language as an abstract and inert object rather than as the dynamic result of an ongoing transformational social process. The linguist M.A.K. Halliday addressed this in the late Seventies with his theory of 'social semiosis' (1978).

Saussurian semiotics had assumed that a systematic and coherent theory of all meaning could be found.

It stresses system and product, rather than speakers and writers or other participants in semiotic activity as connected and interacting in a variety of ways in concrete social contexts. It attributes power to meaning rather than meaning to power. (Hodge & Kress 1988 p1)

Robert Hodge and Gunther Kress go on to elaborate on Halliday's 'social semiotic' method. This uses a basic communications model, that of the message which travels from its point of production by way of a medium to its point of reception. All three of these elements are then contextualised. These (social) contexts carry higher level messages or texts, which they call logonomic. These modulate the meaning of the message giving inflections like irony, which may even reverse the denotated meaning.

Logonomic systems imply a theory of society, an epistemology and a theory of social modalities. Logonomic systems like ideological complexes reflect contradictions and conflicts in the social formations. (Hodge & Kress 1988 p5)

The theory of society, which they work with, is one, which recognises that there are dominant discourses that may induce a variety of discourses of resistance. This seems to be a semiotic method that would be appropriate for a study of the Exploding Cinema and its context of 'underground' culture. Kress then teamed up with Theo Van Leeuwen to produce a theory of the social semiotics of visual design.[4] I have used their dynamic model to examine a typical set of images from the Exploding Cinema programmes.

The seventy surviving illustrated programmes produced by the Exploding Cinema are full of collaged imagery onto which individual film details are pasted. By studying this background imagery we may get some insight into the world of mythopoetic values that the Exploding Cinema inhabits. Each image is chosen to convey something and produce a discourse both between collective members and between the collective and the wider public who attend shows.

I was skeptical that semiotics had delivered much more than a series of helpful concepts in relation to the much promised 'science' of visual meaning before finding the work of Gunther Kress and his collaborators. They had focused on the uncovering of a grammar of the visual.

They also have a vision of a contemporary expansion of visual communication that is independent of the literary and threatening to overtake it. They suggest that our understanding of this contemporary visual grammar is hampered by the inertia of the vested interests of the literary establishment. In literate cultures graphics are "not treated as either the expressions of, or accessible to means of reading based on, articulated, rational and social meanings." (Kress & Van Leeuwen 1996 p20)

I will now examine the different approaches of Roland Barthes and Kress and Van Leeuwen to the analysis of visual meaning.




[1] Social Semiotics by Robert Hodge and Gunther Kress, (Cornell U.P. 1988) contains a good historical introduction.


[2] My main reference here is Image - Music - Text, by Roland Barthes, (Fontana 1977 orig. 1961)


[3] From Umberto Eco, A Theory of Semiotics, (Indiana U.P. 1976), to Judith Williamson, Decoding Advertisements: ideology and meaning in advertising, (Marion Boyars 1978)


[4] Reading Images: the grammar of visual design, Gunther Kress and Theo Van Leeuwen (Routledge 1996)