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A Theory of Semiotics

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"... the greatest contribution to [semiotics] since the pioneering work of C. S. Peirce and Charles Morris." —Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism

"... draws on philosophy, linguistics, sociology, anthropology and aesthetics and refers to a wide range of scholarship... raises many fascinating questions." —Language in Society

"... a major contribution to the field of semiotic studies." —Robert Scholes, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism

"... the most significant text on the subject published in the English language that I know of." —Arthur Asa Berger, Journal of Communication

Eco’s treatment demonstrates his mastery of the field of semiotics. It focuses on the twin problems of the doctrine of signs—communication and signification—and offers a highly original theory of sign production, including a carefully wrought typology of signs and modes of production.

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0. Introduction—Toward a Logic of Culture

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The aim of this book is to explore the theoretical possibility and the social function of a unified approach to every phenomenon of signification and/or communication. Such an approach should take the form of a general semiotic theory, able to explain every case of sign-function in terms of underlying systems of elements mutually correlated by one or more codes.

A design for a general semiotics(1) should consider: (a) a theory of codes and (b) a theory of sign production – the latter taking into account a large range of phenomena such as the common use of languages, the evolution of codes, aesthetic communication, different types of interactional communicative behavior, the use of signs in order to mention things or states of the world and so on.

Since this book represents only a preliminary exploration of such a theoretical possibility, its first chapters are necessarily conditioned by the present state of the art, and cannot evade some questions that – in a further perspective – will definitely be left aside. In particular one must first take into account the all-purpose notion of ‘sign’ and the problem of a typology of signs (along with the apparently irreducible forms of semiotic enquiry they presuppose) in order to arrive at a more rigorous definition of sign-function and at a typology of modes of sign-production.

 

1. Signification and Communication

ePub

If every communication process must be explained as relating to a system of significations, it is necessary to single out the elementary structure of communication at the point where communication may be seen in its most elementary terms. Although every pattern of signification is a cultural convention, there is one communicative process in which there seems to be no cultural convention at all, but only – as was proposed in 0.7 – the passage of stimuli. This occurs when so-called physical ‘information’ is transmitted between two mechanical devices.

When a floating buoy signals to the control panel of an automobile the level reached by the gasoline, this process occurs entirely by means of a mechanical chain of causes and effects. Nevertheless, according to the principles of information theory, there is an ‘informational’ process that is in some way considered a communicational process too. Our example does not consider what happens once the signal (from the buoy) reaches the control panel and is converted into a visible measuring device (a red moving line or an oscillating arm): this is an undoubted case of sign-process in which the position of the arm stands for the level of the gasoline, in accordance with a conventionalized code.

 

2. Theory of Codes

ePub

When a code apportions the elements of a conveying system to the elements of a conveyed system, the former becomes the expression of the latter and the latter becomes the content of the former. A sign-function arises when an expression is correlated to a content, both the correlated elements being the functives of such a correlation.

We are now in a position to recognize the difference between a signal and a sign. A signal is a pertinent unit of a system that may be an expression system ordered to a content, but could also be a physical system without any semiotic purpose; as such it is studied by information theory in the stricter sense of the term. A signal can be a stimulus that does not mean anything but causes or elicits something; however, when used as the recognized antecedent of a foreseen consequent it may be viewed as a sign, inasmuch as it stands for its consequent (as far as the sender is concerned). On the other hand a sign is always an element of an expression plane conventionally correlated to one (or several) elements of a content plane.

 

3. Theory of Sign Production

ePub

What happens when I produce a sign or a string of signs? First of all I must accomplish a task purely in terms of physical stress, for I have to ‘uitter’. Utterances are usually considered as emissions of sounds, but one may enlarge this notion and consider as ‘utterances’ any production of signals. Thus I utter when I draw an image, when I make a purposeful gesture or when I produce an object that, besides its technical function, aims to communicate something.

In all cases this act of uttering presupposes labor. First of all the labor of producing the signal; then the labor of choosing, among the set of signals that I have at my disposal, those that must be articulated in order to compose an expression, as well as the labor of isolating an expression-unit in order to compose an expression-string, a message, a text. Fluency or difficulty in speaking, insofar as it depends on a more or less perfect knowledge of linguistic codes, must be examined by semiotics, although I do not propose to go into the matter here. Rossi-Landi (1968) has dealt with this aspect of performance.

 

4. The Subject of Semiotics

ePub

Since it has been said that the labor of sign production also represents a form of social criticism and of social practice, a sort of ghostly presence, until now somewhat removed from the present discourse, finally makes an unavoidable appearance. What is, in the semiotic framework, the place of the acting subject of every semiosic act?

If one of the topics of a theory of sign production is the relationship between sender and addressee, which constitutes the basis for a consideration of the various kinds of ‘speech acts’, one could remark that very little attention has been devoted, in the preceding chapters, to the ‘transcendental’ or ‘empirical’ protagonist of these processes.

A theory of the relationship sender-addressee should also take into account the role of the ‘speaking’ subject not only as a communicational figment but as a concrete historical, biological, psychic subject, as it is approached by psychoanalysis and related disciplines. Anyway the approach followed in this book requires that the following assumptions be made:

 

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