Semiotics and Cultural Studies


The term semiotics is first of all to be associated with the name of its founding father, F. de Saussure, who argued that language is just one among many systems of signs (e.g. visual forms of communication). Linguistics, in this view, should be seen a sub-discipline of the wider, overarching discipline of semiotics, the science of sign systems. For a number of years, semiotics was largely bracketed by the concerns of departments of communication and media studies (incl. film studies). This is not surprising, as, initially, these were the only academic departments which studied media texts and for whom "visual text" was just as important as "verbal text". The term semiotics also features in the work of the French post-structuralist literary scholar, Roland Barthes (1973, orig. 1964), who studied fashion, boxing, the tour de France, etc. as systems of signification.

    BARTHES, Roland, 1973. Elements of Semiology (trnsl. by A. Lavers & C. Smith]. New York: Hill and Wang. In his Course in General Linguistics, first published in 1916, Saussure postulated the existence of a general science of signs, or Semiology, of which linguistics would form only one part. Semiology therefore aims to take in any system of signs, whatever their substance and limits; images, gestures, musical sounds, objects, and the complex associations of all these, which form the content of ritual, convention or public entertainment: these constitute, if not languages, at least systems of signification. There is no doubt that the development of mass communications confers particular relevance today upon the vast field of signifying media, just when the success of disciplines such as linguistics, information theory, formal logic and structural anthropology provide semantic analysis with new instruments. There is at present a kind of demand for semiology, stemming not from the fads of a few scholars, but from the very history of the modern world.

For illustrative analyses, one can turn to Fiske's essays on popular culture: for instance, Fiske (1989: 41ff.) reads Cottlesoe beach in Western Australia as a text constituted by populations of users (families, surfers, nudists, bathers, pet animals, etc.) and as an anomolous category between "land" and "sea", which is characterised by an excess in meaning potential.

    FISKE, John, 1989. 'Reading the beach'. In: <b>Reading the Popular</b>. London: Unwyn Hyman, 41-69. Semiotically, the beach can be read as a text, and by text I mean a signifying construct of potential meanings  operating on a number of levels. Like all texts, the beach has an author - not, admittedly, a named individual, but a historically determined set of community practices that have produced material objects or signs. By these I mean the beach-side buildings, the changing rooms, the lawns, the esplanades, the vendors' kiosks, the regulatory notices, the steps and benches, the flags and litter bins - all these items whose foregrounded functional dimensions should not blind us to their signifying ones. Like all texts, beaches have readers. People use beaches to seek out certain kinds of meaning for themselves, meanings that help them come to terms with their off-beach, normal life-style. As with other texts, these meanings are determined partly by the structure of the text itself, partly by the social characteristics and discursive practices of the reader - different people use the beach differently, that is, they find different meanings in it, but there is a core of meanings that all users, from respectable suburban family to long-haired dropout surfer, share to a greater or lesser extent.

The neglect of the non-verbal text is one of most blatant shortcomings in 90% of research into language use. Semiotics provides one avenue for developing such a programme, a challenge which has been taken up within social semiotics (e.g. Kress and Van Leeuwen 1996 KRESS, Günther & VAN LEEUWEN, Theo, 1996. Grammar of Visual Design. London: Routledge. , Van Leeuwen 2005 VAN LEEUWEN, Theo, 2005. Introducing Social Semiotics. London: Routledge. ) an off-shoot of systemic functional linguistics which has set for itself the task of developing a multi-modal programme for the analysis of the diversity in resources for making meanings one comes across in social life.



Cultural studies is a vast field. Its origins are usually associated with two founding figures, Raymond Williams and Richard Hoggart and their particular angle on the 'high/low culture'-debate in the 1950s (e.g. Hoggart 1957 HOGGART, Richard, 1957. The Uses of Literacy: Aspects of Working Class Life. London: Chatto and Windus. ; Williams 1975 WILLIAMS, Raymond, 1975. Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. London: Fontana. , 1979 WILLIAMS, Raymond, 1979. Marxism and Literature. London: Oxford University Press. ). They agreed with earlier views (e.g. T.S. Eliot) that literary criticism can offer a critique of culture in the sense that the culture of a society can be 'read' in a literary critical way, but they disagreed as to the object of enquiry. For Williams and Hoggart, culture should not be restricted to the Great Works of Art. Instead the focus should be on everyday behaviour and expressions - culture "as it is lived". One very important centre of development has been the CCCS (the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Culture Studies, founded by Hoggart in 1964). When Stuart Hall became director in 1972, he gave the centre a new interpretation by  introducing the ideas of French structuralism, by relying on a sociological method on enquiry and by linking up CCS with political struggle in the Gramscian sense.  CCS is mainly interested in mass culture and consumer society. Its programme can perhaps be captured in terms of a critical and political response to social, economic and political changes in Western, late capitalist societies. For CCS, culture entails the totality of everyday social existence. Its work has been characterised by a strong Marxist and post-Marxist undercurrent (especially the British and the Australian variants) which was pretty orthodox Marxist in Williams's days, explicitly Gramscian in the work of S. Hall and associates, but in other centres also strongly influenced by the ideas of the Frankfurter Schule. Its most salient research themes have been (i) ethnicity and identity (in particular, the "new ethnicities" - e.g. immigrant identities in Britain), (ii) consumer culture - e.g. pop music, film, etc., and (ii) an analysis of the 'New Right' - e.g. the transformation of the welfare society in Thatcherite Britain).

 /  Discourse is central to CCS, but its daily use of the concept has been mostly subject to the same restrictions as post-structuralist theory. There has been a lot of (theoretical) work on the discourses of postmodernity, but CCS does not offer a paradigm for text analysis as such. However, there are very intimate ties with communication studies and semiotics (cf. CCS's interest in popular film). CCS's links with linguistically-oriented discourse analysis are in many respects indirect - giving research a particular orientation and direction and mediating certain key insights. Let me just list a few:

  • the thematisation of ideology as symbolic practice, which paved the way for language/ideology-research (CCS discovered the work of Althusser before linguistics did).
  • In many respects, CCS introduced linguistically-oriented discourse analysis to the work of M. Foucault, for instance, by thematising "new ethnic identities" in terms of "the fragmentation of the self". In the wake of this thematisation, CCS should also be accredited for bringing together ethnic identities, political identities (especially the "new movements") and consumer identities as lying within the scope of a single research project. This created room for discourse-oriented sociolinguistic research which focuses on particular institutional sites rather than just particular "ethnic communities".
  • CCS's political analyses of "Neo-capitalism and the new right" (often in combination with other sociological work on post-Fordism, new "workplace orders", globalised capitalism, etc.) have provided a major background for work in critical discourse analysis which concentrates on, say, interaction in a social welfare context, counselling in the workplace, etc.

 CCS's development of the theme of "multiple, fragmented identities" deserves mention in its own right because it provides an important theoretical correction to prevailing assumptions about identity within sociolinguistic research. For instance, in her Lacanian reading of social identity, Angela McRobbie (2005 McROBBIE, Angela, 2005. The Uses of Cultural Studies. London: Sage. ) suggests that we stress the (negated) "absent" as much as we do the (affirmed) "present". To her, identity is not just a matter of "who/what one is", but also "who/what one is not", "who/what one could be" and "who/what one would like to be".

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