Looking For The Semiotic Layperson

In searching for kindred spirits out there, I found a number of individual posts which I thought I could use to elucidate some of my own opinions. The following are mini-quotes from some of the people I’ve noticed online who appear to be thinking about symbols, meaning and communication in some fashion. I know there are lots of others, these just struck me as particularly interesting.

kristof28 has the same idea that I do about how symbols work:

Semiotics deals with the production of meaning. A perfectly sensible view of meaning would say that as I am the writer of this sentence so I put the meaning into it and that you, the reader, are the receiver so you take the meaning out. Semiotics is the science of understanding how signs work and how meaning emerges from the relationship between the sender and receiver.

What I would add to their basic statement is that the meaning that the receiver takes out of the message may not be exactly the same as the meaning that the sender put in. The more closely the two communicators share a common context, the more closely aligned will be their understanding. The less sharing before the message, the more likely that the message received will be different than intended.

cjc89 focuses on semiotics as the study of a larger societal process:

it is important to keep in mind that the key to semiotics is an attempt to define how meaning is socially produced (and not individually created). In this light, it will always be subject to power relations and struggles. Furthermore, meaning is always negotiated – it is never static.

In my mind, what “society” does with a symbol is to reinforce it, repeat it, and in this way amplify it. The most commonly shared concepts packaged in the most commonly recognized symbols will tend to get the most use and hence will tend toward relatively more people receiving the same message. But “society” is really a set of individual people. So it is through the popularity among a large set of people that certain symbols and concepts hold sway. I know I’m nit-picking a little here.

iheartunswjourno seems to share a worry about the power of the media:

Choosing to suppress or engage certain arbitrary relations that exist between the signifier and the signified, effectively oppressing or supporting the political agendas of their society. It is quite a scary reality to realize that the media is subtly constructing how we perceive the world.

While I agree that the bombardment of the majority conception of meaning through mass-produced symbols can be hard to counteract, I actually hold out the hope that we as individuals do have power to create meaning, at least within a sphere of influence.

 (The “semiotic” term for this would be “semiosphere“, apparently)

I don’t believe in the existence of “meaning” living outside of the individual. I recognize the volume of symbollic detritous – the notion of our being surrounded by other people’s messages – certainly. And, yes, I recognize that the most powerful will control what is said in the most official channels, but none of us have to merely succomb and accept the message.

The notion of meaning being negotiated is spot on. That’s how it works between two people, and that’s how it works within a society. The miracle of it is that we humans are able to shift between points of view (contexts) with such ease that we don’t often notice ourselves that we have done so.  So while we might disagree with the consensus opinion of our countrymen, we are able to reach common ground with our next door neighbors.

And that’s just the thing that gets the larger process moving, talking with your neighbors and coming to agreement on some aspect of reality.

Every individual can choose to accept or reject the overwhelming flow, or to create their own discourse.  And that is part of our heritage as human beings.

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Semantics of Architecture, Personal and Public

Poking around the blogosphere (should that be capitalized…?) this weekend, I came across Prof. Lindsay Clark’s blog describing some of her research interests in how architectural space becomes a “symbolic space”. I would love to see more details of her thinking there.

If I apply my own thought process to an architectural space, I could see several ways in which that space could be imbued with meaning. 

First of all, as an individual person living in a space, even a simple box-like room, that space will begin to acquire meaning by virtue of my living in it.

 “This corner is where I stood when I first saw the 9-11 video.”

 “I was sitting right here, just so, when I got the phone call about the birth of my nephew.”

 “The last thing she did when she left was to drop the key right there on that spot on the carpet.”

But this meaning is private, personal, and not at all obvious. Anyone else who comes into my physical abode, won’t notice these things, unless they happened to be in the room at the same time and hence remembered these events for themselves.

Second, I could embellish or alter my little space in various ways. I could paint it (with a pattern or not), add images or statuary, or architectural elements, etc. These too may or may not present themselves to a second person as terribly meaningful, unless my selection of elements includes icons or references from some community we both happen to share.

Third, I could imagine, as an architect, working very hard at embedding cultural (community) references through the use of shape and structure, materials, position and location, etc. While I would try to be clever about such symbology, I would likely also try to not be too esoteric, lest my intent be lost on the majority of visitors to the space. The best work, I would think, would appear fresh and clever, and be mostly obvious or at least easily accessed/discovered through direct experience of the space without other forms of description.

 (Nothing like ruining a good joke or a good symbol by having to explain it over and over…)

In this sense, the referents of the structure’s symbols should be recognized through the context of the surrounding environment as experienced in conjunction with or on approach to the space.  

A structure whose meaning requires explicit description (say through placards or brochures) becomes less a symbol in its own right, and more just an exhibit space. While the purpose and meaning of the Egyptian pyramids of Giza in their particulars are not obvious, their size, shape, age and location lends an obvious gravitas to them that I imagine a visitor can not help but recognize, even if they don’t read the brochure. Such a space is what I would describe as a symbolic space.

(Full disclosure: I’ve never been, but would love to go someday).

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