Sign Essay

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The sign, in terms first articulated by Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913), the Swiss linguist, has come to serve as the basic unit of approaches to communication that focus on meaning-making relations rather than on the effectiveness of senders’ communication of intended messages to designated receivers. For Saussure communication involves not messages but signs, i.e. material forms that when articulated and then encountered engender meanings bounded by cultural schemata. The study of signs, then, is at its core social: What conventions determine how signs are made? What conventions determine their readings?

We communicate about the world indirectly through mediating sign languages – gestures, images, sounds, and words but also through such vehicles as decor, design, and dress. Signs may be studied as a matter of dispassionate interest, as instruments of persuasion, or as objects of social criticism. In the latter case researchers would ask: if communication is mediated by signification, what forms of economic, political, and social power determine the mediations? Because it does not privilege the intentions of senders as does the sender–receiver model, semiotics finds interest in whatever meanings a communication happens to produce.

Saussure saw each sign as embedded in a complex chain of differentiations, its meanings comparative and multiple, depending upon its semiotic surroundings. “Morphologically there are neither signs nor meanings, but differences in signs and differences in meanings, (1) each of which exist solely in their relations to others, hence inseparable, but (2) never come into direct contact with each other” (2006, 46; emphasis in original). For  Saussure’s theory, “context is everything” (Jameson 1972, 17). The relationship between concept and sound pattern, between the idea of a cat, for example, and the understood articulation of the spoken or written word ‘cat,’ is “conventional, and thus arbitrary, wholly lacking in any natural link with the object, completely free of and unregulated by it” (Saussure 2006, 140). The object need not exist; ‘unicorn’ can be a sign no less than ‘cat.’ Herein lies the axiomatic ground for communication and cultural studies oriented toward change.

Roland Barthes (1915–1980) parted from Saussure over the arbitrariness of signification, preferring ‘unmotivated’ to ‘arbitrary’ for the Sd/ Sr relation. He maintained that lack of motivation in signs may be complete or be partial, as in fire/ smoke or footprints/past presence, a semiotic category of effect/cause. Barthes also questioned the description ‘arbitrary’ because no individual is “free to modify it” (Barthes 1970, 50), at least under ordinary circumstances of language use. For a semiology without guarantees, without fixed meanings, denotation might most usefully be conceptualized as the most common connotation, rather than as a foundational meaning on which connotation trades. Thinking of connotation as a location for changeable flickers of meaning highlights its ideological quality.

This can be seen in Stuart Hall’s (2006) discussion of encoding/decoding television. Hall offers three general categories to describe the movement from Sr to Sd in this second, connotative system: ‘dominant-hegemonic,’ ‘negotiated,’ and ‘oppositional.’ In the first category, the sign is decoded “in terms of the reference code in which it has been encoded,” and meaning is made “within the dominant code” (Hall 2006, 171). In cases in which the movement from Sr to Sd has been ‘negotiated,’ general meaning-making along dominant-hegemonic lines is supplemented by ‘particular or situated logics.’ Oppositional readings see the Sr in terms hostile to the dominant code, and so understand the sign in terms of a Sd that objects to the dominant project with which it is associated.

Louis Althusser (1971) argued that whenever we make sense of our contemporary world according to dominant codes, our very construction as subjects of that world occurs yet again. For him, situation comedies 577 ideology was not an organized body of ideas but the way the world is ‘lived’ in meaningful terms (Althusser 1971, 217). Yet the sense that, yes, this is the world, is not a recognition of reality – here Althusser followed Jacques Lacan – but a “misrecognition” (1971, 219) that forgets that signs are always maps, always representational, and never territories themselves.


  1. Althusser, L. (1971). ‘Lenin and philosophy’ and other essays (trans. B. Brewster). New York: Monthly Review. (Original work published 1964).
  2. Barthes, R. (1970). ‘Writing degree zero’ and ‘Elements of semiology’ (trans. A. Lavers & C. Smith). Boston: Beacon Press. (Original work published 1964).
  3. Hall, S. (2006). Encoding/decoding. In M. G. Durham & D. M. Kellner (eds.), Media and cultural studies: Key works, 2nd edn. Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 163–173. (Original work published 1973).
  4. Jameson, F. (1972). The prison-house of language: A critical account of structuralism and Russian formalism. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  5. Sanders, C. (ed.) (2004). The Cambridge companion to Saussure. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  6. Saussure, F. (2006). Writings in general linguistics (ed. S. Bouquet & R. Engler with A. Weil; trans. C. Sanders & M. Pires with P. Figuerora). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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