Semiotics: The Study of Meaning (Part 3)

In the third and final installment of a three-part blog series on semiotics, Marcel Danesi, author of The Quest for Meaning: A Guide to Semiotic Theory and Practice, Second Edition looks at how semiotics is applied today.

Read Part 1 and Part 2.


Part 3: Applying Semiotics Today

By Marcel Danesi

French semiotician Roland Barthes

Today, semiotics is playing a prominent role in the study of new media and mass communications. It was French semiotician Roland Barthes who first drew attention to the value of semiotic methods in his pivotal 1957 book, Mythologies. Since then, semiotics has become widely used as a theoretical tool within many fields, from communication theory to culture analysis and psychology. Scholars and researchers continue to be attracted especially by Barthes’ thesis that the meaning structures built into media forms and genres are recycled from the ancient myths, bestowing upon them the same kinds of significance in an ersatz manner.

As a case-in-point, consider the comic book figure of Superman, introduced in 1938 by Action Comics. What or who does Superman represent? He stands, as Barthes might answer, for a superhuman figure in the same tradition of mythic heroes such as Atlas, Hercules, and others. But the Superman hero story has been updated and adapted culturally – he is an “American” hero who represents “truth,” “justice,” and “the American way,” as a 1950s television series proclaimed in its prologue to each episode. Like some mythic heroes, such as Achilles, our reconstructed hero also has a “tragic flaw” – exposure to kryptonite, a substance that is found on Krypton, the planet where he was born, renders him devoid of his awesome powers. However, rather than being sent to Earth by the gods as in the original myths, Superman was sent by his parents in a spaceship moments before Krypton was destroyed by a natural cataclysm.

On Earth, Superman leads a “double life,” as superhero and as Clark Kent, a “mild-mannered” reporter for a daily newspaper; he is adored by Lois Lane, a reporter for the same newspaper who suspects (from time to time) that he may be Superman. He wears a distinctive costume coded in colour symbolism – a red cape suggesting “noble blood” and blue tights the “hope” he brings to humanity. Of course, the red and blue combination is also indicative of the colours of the American flag, and thus symbolic of heroic patriotism. Now, the reason why Superman continues to be popular today, appearing in different media, is arguably because of the “hero code” that he embodies, which guides each of the episodes in the Superman saga. In any specific story we can expect to find our hero portrayed as fighting some villain, flirting at some point with Lois Lane as Clark Kent, resolving a crisis with his extraordinary powers, and so on. However, unlike the ancient myths, which remained constant in their portrayals of superhuman heroism, today these might vary, and might include a satire or parody of the Superman figure.

Now, answering the question of why Superman (or any comic book action superhero for that matter) appeals to modern-day audiences requires us to delve into the origin and history of the archetypal heroic figure. In classical mythology, heroes are individuals, often of divine ancestry, who are endowed with great courage and strength, celebrated for their bold exploits. They are character abstractions who embody lofty human ideals for all to admire – truth, honesty, justice, fairness, moral strength, and so on. Modern-day audiences feel this intuitively as did the ancient ones who watched stage performances of mythic hero characters.

A technique used by Barthes to flesh out these meanings in representations of heroes is that of opposition – a technique that goes back to the origin of semiotics as a structuralist science with Ferdinand de Saussure. Consider the differences that are associated with the white-versus-dark opposition in Western (and other) cultures. The colour white connotes “cleanliness,” “purity,” “innocence,” etc., while its antonymic counterpart dark connotes “uncleanness,” “impurity,” “corruption,” etc. Now, from early cowboy movies, in which the heroes wore white hats and the villains wore black ones, to the use of dark settings in horror and thriller movies, the set of connotations associated with the white-versus-dark opposition is being constantly recycled in various representations. On the other hand, today, this opposition might be utilized for the reverse purpose: that is, to link the connotations associated with darkness to heroes so that they can be perceived as mysterious and dauntless. This is why the Zorro character of cinema fame wears black, as did several Hollywood Western characters of the past (such as Lash Larue).

Saussure referred to opposition as différence, whereby we perceive signs as meaningfully distinct on the basis of minimal cues. In a word pair such as cat-versus-mat, the minimal phonic difference in the initial consonant sounds is the cue that leads us to perceive them as distinct meaningful words. Such différences are found at every level of language or any code. Applied to the Superman code, for example, the relevant oppositions that constitute it involve the differences between heroes and villains –Superman is brave, villains are cowards, he is strong morally, they are weak, and so on. The set of oppositions can be applied to the analysis of any hero figure, from Agent 007 to Wonder Woman.

Opposition theory became a founding principle of structuralism in semiotics – a principle that envisions signs as meaning-bearing only in relation to other signs. This whole approach came under severe criticism by the late French philosopher Jacques Derrida, leading to the movement known as post-structuralism, which gained prominence in the 1970s. According to Derrida, the oppositions identified by semioticians are easily exposed as resulting from an endemic set of cultural biases, and thus have nothing to do with some oppositional system of understanding present in the human brain. In contrast to Saussure’s idea of différence, Derrida coined the word différance (spelled with an “a” but pronounced in the same way), to intentionally critique the theory. Derrida argued further that all sign systems and codes are self-referential – signs refer to other signs, which refer to still other signs, and so on ad infinitum. The goal of “deconstructionism,” as he called it, was to make people aware of this circularity. Post-structuralism has receded somewhat since Derrida’s death in 2004, but in hindsight, its main perspective has always been inherent in both semiotics and linguistics. In the 1920s, linguists and semioticians were deconstructing the “relativity” of language forms in terms of their culture-specific social and psychological functions. Basing their ideas in part on the work of nineteenth-century German philosopher Wilhelm von Humboldt, they posited that semiotic categories not only mirrored social and cognitive ones – they actually shaped them. Therefore, they saw opposition theory as a technique, not as an ideological weapon – a view that continues today.

An overriding goal of the second edition of my book has been to show that semiotics has truly become an indispensable discipline today, given the misinformation and disinformation structures that are distributed throughout cyberspace. I would claim that everything from memes and conspiracy theories to robot communication is better understood with the analytical tools of semiotics. The late Estonian semiotician Jurij Lotman called the system of signs in which we live the semiosphere. Like the biosphere, the semiosphere regulates human behaviour and shapes cultural evolution. Today, it enfolds not only the cultural codes developed historically in real space, but also the ones that are emerging in virtual space, and even in artificial spaces.

Sign systems evolve, and semiotics can help understand why this is so. It also allows us to grasp the reasons why in such an advanced technological age, superhero codes remain a part of everyday life. Semiotics not only deconstructs these codes in structural terms but also highlights the human reasons for the origin and preservation of these codes. The main one is that the search for meaning transcends era and culture – hence its incorporation in stories such as those of superhuman heroes. While it still has not spread broadly throughout the academic landscape, it is becoming more and more obvious that semiotics needs to be assigned a central spot in that landscape. As Charles Peirce often wrote, we are inclined to “think only in signs,” which help us reflect upon the world and to change it in our imaginations first, before we change it materially. This is the main premise of my book.


Interested in finding out more about the second edition of The Quest for Meaning: A Guide to Semiotic Theory and PracticeClick here to read an excerpt from the book.

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