Lecture 2: Language and Representation: The Arbitrariness of the Sign

According to McLuhan

  • Two big ideas from McLuhan
  • Media are anything that extend the human senses. Media are multiple things
  • Secondly, the medium is the message. McLuhan argued that the means by which we communicate is the most significant thing about our communication
  • Critiques of “the medium is the message”
  • Some think media content is still more important than its mode of delivery. Ex. The way that emoticons are used in social media over how the message is delivered
  • Others say McLuhan glorified technology as progress (the critique of technological determinism: people who believe that technology dictates social progress)
  • Lastly, some say McLuhan’s notion of the message misses the point entirely since media today is about simulation

Simulation Comes from Plato’s Idea of the Simulacra

  • Plato’s three orders of representation
  • First order (Reality) (Original): The sun and light outside the cave
  • Second order (Copy, mimesis, and representation of the original): Fire, created by the guards to emulate light and warmth which are naturally created outside by the sun
  • Third order (Copy of copy, mimicry, simulacra): Shadows on the wall, created by the fire, which was created by the guards
  • Update of cave metaphor
  • First Order (Reality): The world out there (Ex. On the battlefield, off the internet, etc.)
  • Second Order (representation): Our media (Ex. Signatures carry identity, phones copy voices, televisions copy eyes and ears, nuclear weapons copy army presence)
  • Third order (Simulacra): The products of our media forms. This means the outcomes of the original representation. (Ex. Automated call lines, identity theft, weapons set on times rather than by humans)

Representation: Sign / Real

  • Representation starts from the principle that the sign and the real equivalent
  • Put in Platonic terms, a copy is designed to be equivalent to an original (Ex. Fire is supposed to be equivalent to the sun, but man-made)
  • Put in McLuhan’s terms, media extends the human senses. This goes back to his original argument how media extends our senses (For McLuhan, fire extends our eyes)

Introduction to Structuralism

  • Structuralism represents the argument that there is no inherent meaning in a piece of art, or civilization, or any other object of study. A structuralist focuses her analyses on the formal structures of art, civilization, etc. attempting to read them as one would decipher parts of an interdependent text
  • Structuralism borrows from semiotics: it is concerned with the underlying relations of texts. The perspective that meaning results from interplay of relationships of selection and combination
  • Structuralism makes explicit the structure which governs production of meaning
  • Structuralism enables both the readings of texts and the reading of cultures
  • All culture / media can be ‘read’ because it is structured as language Is structured
  • Some structuralist thinkers include
  • Marx in economics
  • Freud in psychoanalysis
  • Saussure in linguistics

Two Major Theorists of Signs

  • Ferdinand de Saussure: Saussure was born in 1857. He was a linguist, focusing on Sanskrit and ancient Indo-European languages. Saussure focuses on national languages, like English and French
  • Charles Sanders Peirce

Does Sound Make Meaning?

  • Before Saussure, linguists argued that language reflected a natural link between the sound and its object. A classic example is screaming
  • Today we speak of the relationship between names and objects as culturally constructed

Does Universality Make Meaning?

  • Before Saussure, philosophers argued that there were ‘universal elements to language. Classic example includes smelling smoke as indicating fire. Another example includes smiling as indicating happiness
  • However, problems with these theories are that “natural language” theory only works for sound; images have always had multiple meanings. Another problem is that “universal language” theory does not stand up to empirical analysis. All sorts of supposedly universal signs confuse viewers (Ex. HSBC commercial 1: As a bank, HSBC is trying to communicate cultural sensitivity through their commercials. They emphasis on cultural difference as a marketing technique, but at the same time they are stating that cultural differences do not exist, because they understand different cultures, thus are global)

Saussure’s Counter-Theory

  • Rather than natural or universal, Saussure wants to explain that language is a system of arbitrary, linked signs. Individuals make sense of signs through codes
  • What is a Sign?
  • Daniel Chandler states that anything can be a sign as long as someone interprets it as ‘signifying’ something, meaning referring to or standing for something than itself. Signs can take the forms of words (Ex. Spoken, written, sign language), images (including those mechanically and digitally reproduced as in photos or film, sounds (including music), scents, flavors, acts (Ex. The act of dying which may refer to loss of attachment to an individual, having sex, playing sports, etc.), objects (Ex. Wedding ring, homes, etc.)

Sign = Signifier + Signified

  • According to Saussure, the sign consists of two elements
  • Signifier: The form which the sign takes. It is the actual representation of the sign
  • Signified: The concept it represents. A signified always refers to actual mental concept when looking at the signifier. A signified can also be a non-physical object (Ex. Love)
  • Ex. The signifier “car" can represent multiple mental concepts (signified)
  • Sonic signifiers examples include knocking on the door, telephone ringing, fire alarm, car honking
  • If the sign is arbitrary, then how do we make meaning in writing, and how come everything does not seem like crazy poetry? What allowed you to read this paragraph, and see it as more than gibberish?  The answer is difference. For Saussure, difference is the means whereby value is established in any systems of linguistic signs. This means that there has to be a difference among signs in order to put them together to create meaning. For instance, grammar, usage, custom, history, syntax, and spelling are all difference mechanisms, in that they define what words will mean when placed next to one another. Meaning is impossible to ascertain outside of the system of difference
  • Example from written English
  • John killed Mary
  • Marry killed John
  • Given standard conventions of English grammar, who would we believe to be dead in each sentence above? Mary died in the first sentence, and John in second
  • How does word order (position of signs in chain) establish meaning in each sentence? In the first sentence, Mary is the object of the sentence, whereas the subject is John. The verb is kill which indicates that John killed Mary. This allows individuals to make meanings of signs 
  • Example from visual culture: Video clip of Gap: Everybody in Vests: this is an example of chain of signifiers because all the people in the commercial, wearing a vest, they add up to produce that everyone is in the vest. Thus, the viewer gets the total meaning that everyone is in the vest. This is the connotation of the commercial

The Chain of Signifiers

  • For Saussure, we establish meaning when we connect a chain of signs in our heads in a particular order
  • Example from sonic culture: Emergency broadcast: the alert beeping and the alert voice can be added to produce meaning
  • Example from economics: Which is worth more, 50 cents or a $5 bill? That depends on whether we understand “worth” as use or exchange value

What is Use Value and Exchange Value?

Use Value: Refers to what the materiality of an object gamers in the world. What the object is actually made out of (the material. In our example 50 cents is metal and could be melted down into something else, whereas a five dollar bill is made of paper. In terms of use value, the 50 cents is therefore worth more than the 5 dollar bill).

Exchange value: For instance, if you treat your 50 cents as if it is worth more than a five dollar bill in the market, what happens? The exchange value would be affected because the five dollar bill has a greater exchange value.

  • In Saussure terms, it looks like this: Exchange value as a chain of signs: 50c + 50c +50c + 50c+ 50c+ 50c+ 50c+ 50c+ 50c+ 50c = 5 dollars
  • Another example is the Hijab or a Hoodie: The use value would be covering the head. The exchange value for the Hijab would be for religious purposes or contains political values. The exchange value for the hoodie might be cultural, including hoodlum
  • Does ceasing the production of pennies in Canada offer an example of a decrease in use value or exchange value of the penny? It is actually an example of both because the notion of currency which you can use to buy products and services makes it a use value. However, we can also exchange products for currency as well. Thus, money can be used on a universal equivalent

Constructivists / Constructionists

  • Constructivists believe that individuals cannot determine or predict behavior, but they believe that world/reality is constantly negotiated by individuals. For instance, constructionists like Saussure approach representation in two ways
  • Semiotics: Referring to how signs creating meaning

Discursive: How discourse created knowledge 

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