H uman beings the world over share one fundamental reality—they are born into, reared in, and probably cannot survive without, a culture. Even individuals who have decided at some point in their lives to live a hermetic existence, far removed from any society, are nonetheless bearers of skills and knowledge that they have acquired as a consequence of simply being born in a cultural ambiance. Culture sets Homo sapiens apart from all other species. For this reason, it is perhaps more accurate to use the term Homo culturalis to characterize the human species. Homo culturalis is above all else a meaning-seeking species, whose hunger and search for meaning to its existence has led it to invent myths, art, ritual, language, science, and all the other cultural phenomena that guide its search. The study of how humans search for and make meaning comes under the rubric of semiotics. This science studies what is perhaps the most fundamental condition of this search—the capacity for creating and using signs for representing the world. If there is one trait that distinguishes the human species from all others, it is precisely the role that signs play in human consciousness. These provide humans with powerful mental tools for asking questions about who they are, where they fit into the scheme of things, and why they are here.
The purpose of this book is to paint a semiotic portrait of Homo culturalis for students taking beginning courses in semiotics, communications, media, or culture studies. Its layout of topics is based on the organization of the first-year course in semiotics and communication theory one of the authors has been teaching at Victoria College of the University of Toronto since 1987. Together, we have composed it so that a broad audience can appreciate the fascinating and vital work going on in this relatively unknown area of inquiry, most of which is often too technical for general consumption. For this reason, both the expository style and the contents of this book are intended for beginning students, and interested readers generally, who want, or need, an overview of semiotic theory and practice. Prior technical knowledge is not necessary. We have made every attempt possible to build upon what the reader already knows intuitively about signs and culture. Nevertheless, the writing is not so diluted as to make it a popular “all-you-wanted-to-know-about-semiotics-but-were-afraid-to-ask” book. Some effort to understand the contents of each chapter on the part of the reader will be required. The more technical parts might even entail re-reading. Since the focus of the book is practical, it can also be used as a reference volume to complement or supplement courses that deal with culture from their own perspectives, such as psychology, anthropology, sociology, and history. It is therefore designed to be both an introduction to, and/or a handbook for, the semiotic study of culture.
The plan and contents of this book have been shaped by an amalgam of suggestions and insights that we have picked up from our students. It is divided into three parts: (1) Basic Notions and Views, (2) The Semiotic Study of Culture, (3) A Practical Synthesis.
The three chapters in this opening part are designed to lay the theoretical groundwork for the semiotic study of culture. In chapter 1, we commence by sketching a brief historical outline of the various approaches that have characterized the study of culture inside and outside the field of semiotics proper. Then, we cast a brief glance at the theories that have been put forward to explain why and how culture may have originated, with a view towards defining culture in semiotic terms and differentiating it from such cognate notions as society, race, ethnicity, and a few others that are often confused with culture. After that, we introduce the reader to the spheres—kinship, religious, political, legal, economic, and educational—that compose the institutional orb of culture.
In chapter 2, we discuss and illustrate in a general way what a semiotic approach to culture entails. We start off by taking the reader on a rapid historical journey through the semiotic landscape, ending up with a brief consideration of the contributions made by the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure and the American logician Charles S. Peirce to the establishment of the modern-day science of signs. In the process, we will differentiate semiotics both from communication science and from the contemporary approach to the study of human mental functioning known as cognitive science. We also identify the various interdisciplinary dimensions that a modern semiotic approach to culture would enlist, for semiotic analysis is, above all else, an interdisciplinary mode of scientific inquiry. We end the chapter by discussing briefly the guiding principles of semiotic analysis.
In chapter 3, we introduce the reader to the “basics” of semiotic analysis, synthesizing for the reader what is known in this field about (1) the various ways in which semiosis, the innate capacity to produce and understand signs, manifests itself in human representational activities and systems; (2) the kinds of signs that characterize human semiosis; (3) the properties that signs have; (4) the ways in which signs cohere into structural systems; (5) the effects of signs on perception and thinking.
Chapters 4 to 11 are designed to show the reader in practical ways how semioticians would go about identifying, documenting, and explaining the various meaning-based aspects of culture and human behavior.
- In chapter 4, we focus on the nature of nonverbal semiosis and communication (gesture, facial expressions, eye contact, touch, etc.).
- In chapter 5, we discuss the phenomenon of language, focusing on such topics as how language may have originated, how children learn to speak, how language shapes thought, and how it is used in social contexts.
- In chapter 6, we examine the nature and role of metaphor in shaping cultural groupthink.
- In chapter 7, we discuss the cultural meanings of territories, spaces, and buildings.
- In chapter 8, we discuss the importance of art to culture and human life generally.
- In chapter 9, we turn our attention to the cultural meanings of objects, artifacts, and technological processes.
- In chapter 10, we look at the forms and cultural functions of narrative.
- In chapter 11, we look at the nature of media, focusing on television and advertising.
Part III: A Practical Synthesis (Chapter 12)
The final part consists of one chapter containing a synthesis of the main points covered on semiotic method and on the nature of culture. We start by dividing the task of semiotic analysis into macrosemiotic and microsemiotic components—illustrating practically how to carry out each type of investigation. The former is concerned, in essence, with examining the relation of the parts to the whole, i.e. of signs and texts to the constitution of a culture; the latter is concerned instead with examining how the parts glean their meanings from the whole, i.e. how the meanings of texts created or used in specific contexts are governed by embedded cultural meanings.
We warn the reader that the topics chosen for treatment, and the specific contents of each chapter, reflect our own interests and our own particular approach to semiotics. Nevertheless, since it has been used in various manuscript forms in actual classes, and has therefore been subjected to the critiques of students, we believe that this text will induce in our readers a nonpartisan, discriminating view of culture that they might not have had before reading it (as we believe it has in our own students). That alone will make the writing of this book worthwhile.
In our opinion, the value of semiotics lies in providing a discriminating screen for filtering the unconscious meanings conveyed by the culturally forged signs and images that assail us on a daily basis—images that surreptitiously, but gradually, shape our thoughts and lifestyle behaviors, as well as covertly suggesting how we can, as a species, best satisfy our innermost urges and aspirations. The semiotic “filtration process” allows us to uncover the implicit messages in those images. But we emphasize from the very outset that this is not a critical book about “the modern world.” There are many works currently on the market that look at modern-day consumerist cultures trenchantly that the reader can consult, if he/she so desires. Rather, the aim of this book is to put the reader himself/herself in a better position to decipher the hidden meanings woven into the images that are produced by such cultures.
To render this introductory survey even more useful as a classroom text or as a self-study manual, we have used a cross-reference system throughout it so as to direct the reader’s attention to previous or subsequent sections that also deal with the subject matter at hand. At the end of the book, we have included a series of activities and questions for discussion for each chapter that can be taken up in class, or else used as guidelines for self-study to review a chapter’s main ideas and contents.
Finally, we have included at the back:
- brief biographical sketches of some of the scholars whose ideas are discussed in the text, summarizing their relevance to the study of signs and/or culture;
- a glossary of technical terms;
- an extensive bibliography that can be scanned by anyone wishing to fill in the gaps left by our treatment.
The reader should note that we have abandoned the convention of using “he/she.” “his/her,” “him/her,” and “himself/herself,” using instead the following abbreviations:
- s/he for “he/she”;
- h/er for both “his/her” and “him/her”
- h/erself for “himself/herself.”
We would like to thank, above anyone else, our students. Their critical responses to our lectures, along with the many enthusiastic classroom discussions we have had with them over the years, have encouraged us to write this manual for a broader audience. We would like to thank our friend and colleague Pascal Michelucci who technically produced this book. A special thanks goes out to those university administrators under whom we have worked and from whom we have always received enthusiastic support. They are: Drs. Eva Kushner, Roseanne Runte, Alexandra Johnston, Brian Merrilees, and William Callahan. Finally, a special debt of gratitude is owed to Professor Thomas A. Sebeok, Professor at Indiana University and Honorary Fellow of Victoria College (University of Toronto), for the unwavering support he has always given to the study and development of the Program in Semiotics and Communication Theory at the University of Toronto. It is his intellectual influence that has shaped the study of semiotics in classrooms throughout this continent, and particularly in our own classrooms.
Marcel Danesi and Paul Perron
University of Toronto, 1999