Sunday, October 21, 2012

Chaotic Semiotic

Many articles or text books, from an academic standing, can be hard to read. The authors use words that the average person would never use. The sentences contain several ideas and are longer than average. As soon as we begin reading these documents, sometimes, our eyes glaze over and we just give up. This predicament only happens when a document is written in a style that is hard to follow. I found an old homework assignment that tested my ability as a reader, and I soon lost focus and gave up. This book is, Media Semiotics: An introduction, Second Addition, by Jonathan Bignell, and the chapter I will be focusing on is “Signs and Myths,” which investigates the critical approach in contemporary media studies.

Bignell wrote this book to help people understand the meaning behind semiotics. In semiotics, there are several different connotations of a phrase, word, or idea. It is important for some people to understand that everything has several meanings, and this book attempts to help them understand the confusing concept of semiotics. However, Bignell attempts to describe that no image, or sign, is meaningful until it is put in relation with other signs. Using codes, or society’s rules, determines the connotation of the sign or object used. Knowing the different meanings behind an object is helpful for many activity systems.

There are several activity systems that come into conflict within this book. It was written to give the reader an introduction to media semiotics but most of all, media studies. The study of media is used in activity systems such as communications, human resources, politics, sociology, theory, advertising, and education, just to name a few. However, I would like to focus on the activity systems of education and advertising.

The way this book is written (official style) could be difficult to understand, so the wrong idea may be interpreted. Some aspects of the text are easy to read, but other parts are down-right dreadful. For instance, students may begin to read the document and decide the context is too difficult; as a result they give up. The only reason students would be reading the essay would be to better understand semiotics for class or a professor. Semiotics, even that word causes me to pause and rethink reading the section. The terms are hard to understand and when the author repeats sign, signifier, and signified it is inevitable that some people may get lost within the text.

For advertisers, they see media semiotics as something they need to comprehend. They need to know the sign - object, word, phrase, and thing - has many other meanings. When an advertiser creates an advertisement the advertiser needs to be aware of the connotations of an image in certain cultures. Advertisers must be careful with how they use signs in a context because it might cause conflict between others if the meaning is interpreted wrong. However, if an advertiser reads this book and learns semiotics they can effectively use it to change the connotations of words, images, or objects in a culture. This book gives certain activity systems knowledge of semiotics, but the way it is written could lead the reader to interpret the meaning of semiotics ineffectively.

Here are some passages from the text, “Saussure drew a distinction between the evolution of linguistic signs through time, called 'diachronic' linguistics, and the study of signs existing at a given point in time, called 'synchronic' linguistics. From a diachronic point of view, we might investigate the way that a particular sign like 'thou' used to be used in ordinary language but is now used only in religious contexts” (10). I put this excerpt into the readability calculator at According to the readability calculator the Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease was 48.5, this translates to an average reading level of about 13.8. The words per sentence are 27.0, and an average character per word of 4.8. The author gets the point across, but with long sentences and a bunch of “mumbo jumbo.” He could easily say for the first sentence: Saussure noticed the evolution of linguistic signs through time. I cut back on three words and ended the sentence earlier. Now there is a more simplistic version of the very first line. After the first sentence now he can talk about diachronic linguistics and synchronic linguistics. But the next sentence could easily be shortened to: In diachronic linguistics, we may investigate the sign ‘thou’ the way it used to be used and its use only in religion today. Now, this is starting to make sense. The vocabulary and concepts are hard enough without official style, so why not make it easier on students and advertisers, who need to learn semiotics for future knowledge.

Here is another excerpt, “It is usual to assume that words and other kinds of sign are secondary to our perception and understanding of reality. It seems that reality is out there all around us, and language usefully names real things and the relationships between them” (8). This excerpt doesn’t have hard vocabulary, but it has complex sentences with ideas that need to be split up in order to interpret them easily. Here is a shorter version: words and other signs are secondary for us, and our understanding of reality. Reality is out there, and language names real things and the relationships between them. Getting rid of all the extra fluff can help with the clarity of the sentence.

So why does the author use forms of the official style to explain semiotics? I think he uses it to sound more credible and professional. Plus, he may have been trained to write this way, just like so many other English majors. When I began to read this homework assignment my “BS level” went way off the charts because it was hard to follow the concepts and ideas written in this document. Reading this chapter is difficult to pay attention too. It is easy to get lost due to the longer sentences and multiple ideas per sentence. For some people, the official style may be seen as a more professional way to write. If a book or scholarly article is not written in this certain style than people find it difficult to trust the writer because this writer may not be educated enough to draw from or use as a source. Using the official style to describe the concept of semiotics may not be helpful for the reader.

by Katie Mickschl

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