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Related: interpretation - intertextuality - linguistics - meaning - representation - sign - Post-structuralism - Structuralism


Semiotics, the study of signs or sign system, applies to any kind of signs, not just words (as in semantics). John Locke first coined the term in 1690 in An essay concerning human understanding.

Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914), founder of the philosophical school of pragmatism, invented semiotics as a discipline, terming it semeiotic."

Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913), the "father" of modern linguistics, invented, at about the same time as Peirce, a subject he called "semiology."

Charles W. Morris (1901-1979) achieved recognition for his Foundations of the Theory of Signs.

Umberto Eco made a wider audience aware of semiotics by various publications, most notably A Theory of Semiotics. Eco explicitly acknowledges Peirce's importance.

Literary Semiotics applies the theory of signs (and also communication and information theory) to the interpretation of literary works. Literary semioticians often have an interest in the attempt to apply the tools and techniques of the hard sciences, such as mathematical formulae and computer analysis of texts, to literary criticism.

Others, like the French critic, Roland Barthes, and many Marxists, employ semiotic techniques as a tool of political and social criticism and satire. Pop Culture artifacts have become frequent targets of the semiotic approach, as for example when Barthes deconstructed tag-team wrestling. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Semiotics

Semiotic literary criticism

Semiotic literary criticism, also called literary semiotics, is the approach to literary criticism informed by the theory of signs or semiotics. Semiotics, tied closely to the structuralism pioneered by Ferdinand de Saussure, was extremely influential in the development of literary theory out of the formalist approaches of the early twentieth century.

The early forms of literary semiotics grew out of formalist approaches to literature, especially Russian formalism, and structuralist linguistics, especially the Prague school. Notable early semiotic authors included Vladimir Propp, Algirdas Julius Greimas, and Viktor Shklovsky. These critics were concerned with a formal analysis of narrative forms which would resemble a literary mathematics, or at least a literary syntax, as far as possible. They proposed various formal notations for narrative components and transformations and attempted a descriptive taxonomy of existing stories along these lines. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Semiotic_literary_criticism [Dec 2005]

See also: literary theory - literary criticism

Semiotics for beginners

Although Saussure stressed the importance of the relationship of signs to each other, one of the weaknesses of structuralist semiotics is the tendency to treat individual texts as discrete, closed-off entities and to focus exclusively on internal structures. Even where texts are studied as a 'corpus' (a unified collection), the overall generic structures tend themselves to be treated as strictly bounded. The structuralist's first analytical task is often described as being to delimit the boundaries of the system (what is to be included and what excluded), which is logistically understandable but ontologically problematic. Even remaining within the structuralist paradigm, we may note that codes transcend structures. The semiotic notion of intertextuality introduced by Julia Kristeva is associated primarily with poststructuralist theorists. Kristeva referred to texts in terms of two axes: a horizontal axis connecting the author and reader of a text, and a vertical axis, which connects the text to other texts (Kristeva 1980, 69). Uniting these two axes are shared codes: every text and every reading depends on prior codes. Kristeva declared that 'every text is from the outset under the jurisdiction of other discourses which impose a universe on it' (cited in Culler 1981, 105). She argued that rather than confining our attention to the structure of a text we should study its 'structuration' (how the structure came into being). This involved siting it 'within the totality of previous or synchronic texts' of which it was a 'transformation' (Le texte du roman, cited by Coward & Ellis 1977, 52). http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/S4B/sem09.html --Daniel Chandler

Prague School

The Prague Linguistic Circle founded as Cercle Linguistiqe de Prague or in Czech Pražský lingvistický kroužek became known around the world as the Prague School. Its proponents developed methods of structuralist literary analysis during the years 1928–1939. It has had significant continuing influence on linguistics and semiotics. After WWII, the circle was disbanded but the Prague School continued as a major force in linguistic functionalism (distinct from the Copenhagen school or English Firthian — later Hallidean — linguistics). --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prague_linguistic_circle [Jan 2006]


  1. Semiotics: The Basics - Daniel Chandler
    Book Description
    Following the successful Basics format, this is the book for anyone coming to semiotics for the first time. Using jargon-free language and lively, up-to-date examples, Semiotics: The Basics demystifies this highly interdisciplinary subject. Along the way, the reader will find out what a sign and a text are, what codes we take for granted, how semiotics can be used in textual analysis and who Saussure, Peirce, Barthes and Jakobson are and why they are important. Features include a glossary of key terms and realistic suggestions for further reading.

    Daniel Chandler decided to write this book because at the time there were no books providing an introduction to the complex subject of semiotics. There are now a number of titles on the market, but Chandler's is by far the best. At once accessible, Semiotics: The Basics, takes the reader through all the stages in the evolution of an understanding of semiotics and contextualises with clear examples. I used this book while writing my final undergraduate dissertation and had to read many of the other books on semiotics, but this is the book that I kept coming back to when I needed refreshing both in the basics and the more sophisticated concepts of semiotics. If you are an undergraduate just starting a course in semiotics then buy this book. And if you are about to teach a course in semiotics then read this book and recommend it to your students. --hicharlie2001 for amazon.com

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