WHAT DOES SEMIOTICS UNIQUELY DO
So, we've established that an array of methodologies are ready to crowd out the semiotics approach, but that semiotics has the potential to work alongside these methodologies. Does that mean that semiotics is doomed only to work in tandem?
Is it destined to become a purely hyphenated methodology with a blurred identity?
I have been involved in a number of projects during which the client agreed that they could only have been tackled by a semiotician. The first was Radio Centre in their quest to create a common language through which to describe music and sound for planners and creatives wanting to choose the right brand meanings. The Strike a Chord research utilised both qualitative research and neuro-metrics facets. You can read about it here: http://www.radiocentre.org/strikeachord/
The second project, finished recently involved understanding the changing form of humour and determining which types of humour appealed to youth. This was close to an impossible challenge, but it is the sort of challenge that semiotics relishes. Semiotics views humour as an inter-subjective language that we can agree on. Jokes and other forms of humour often rely on cultural understanding. This is the very thing semiotics specialises in. Most disciplines have a narrow focus on one areas, but semiotics operates in the interstices between culture, that joins the dots between parts of culture to provide a holistic understanding of the issues. Semiotics is versatile and inter-disciplinary enough to cover all the ground and to see what is ‘funny’ within music, internet memes, drama and consumer generated content.
In fact this project highlighted many of the unique strengths of semiotics below.
The process involved hashtagging 1200 separate data points which tags to denote the humour type (pastiche, slapstick, gross out etc) accounting for its humour and then, tallying up the highest incidence of humour types into rankings. These were then plotted on a humour map of Cognitive to Emotional & Affiliative to Aggressive.
And the humour gap between the broadcaster and youth humour was thus revealed.
It is hard to see how any other methodology could have handled this question. Big Data algorithms seem unlikely to be able to pick up on something as sophisticated as humour. Image recognition technology is in its infancy: it can be too easily fooled (bagels and dogs) to deal with memes that work via inter-textual references, subtle ironic stances and ads that work through figurative rhetorics etc. Neuro-Metrics is too brittle and focus on comparative metrics not what underlies it, so does not have the literacy to crack this one. Humour is not really about decision making, but it is about impulse, so behavioural science is not relevant. Perhaps more useful when thinking about comedy clubs social norms, how laughter can be increased by social norms and phatic communication etc.. But it does not have the power of semiotics when it is about scrutinising visual texts and combining with cultural analysis. Bio-Metrics – bio-metrics could help to look at the emotional decisions off the back of showing funny videos and which perform best, but you would still need to sift and sort. Trends Syndication – could perhaps show the rise of certain types of humour savage humour, meta comedy, vaudeville. As explained above these would remain disconnected tendencies and unexplained, only semiotics can knits these together.
Implicit Response – could test the speed with which we associate various comedy programmes with the word funny, witty, comedy, amusing, belly laugh etc etc, but a very blunt instrument… Only anthropology or netnography, but it was a forms of netnography anyway that did it. We required detective work that semiotics brought.
So, in conclusion, only semiotics can really do this. Having thought a lot about what it is that allows semiotic uniquely to do what it does I have come up with 6 different sensibilities or skills that mark applied semiotics out.
Charles Peirce suggested that Firstness of sensation would precede the Secondness of perception and the Thirdness of cognition and that actually the first level of aesthetic would lead to certain types of logic and then to habits of thought leading to Ethics. This has now come to pass through the affective turn with emotion leading us to response to stimulus through reflex and this becoming habitual over time. Semioticians shoudlalso be aware of their own ideological biases so that they can make balanced . there is an acute sensitivity towards visual signs and cultural texts and a compulsive sensitivity towards it. It could even be compared to a sort of addiction to deciphering – the cathexis with the signs. This can be seen to be the form of allergy of Cayce Pollard in William Gibson’s pattern recognition who was unable to view the Michelin Bibendum without anaphylactic shock. Semotica paper on Vipassana meditation.
The mind of the semiotician is bristling with frameworks, models, heurists itching to cut into the coal face of culture to quarry insights (check out the Structure piece number 9 out of the Semiotic Shorts) The mind of the semiotician is stock full of nuggets of information often miscellanea from art theory, visual culture, advertising, and product design. But also a way of seeing (John Berger) and knack for noticing what is overlooked. The textual acuity of the semiotician is one of the hallmatks of a good semiotics. Some of the stultifying and philistinic readings of popular culture want to make you weep – lazy assumptions, cliché, cultural amnesia often obtuse or myopic. You want to thrill to the deft detail – like a maestro number 10. This is something you cannot expect form the average data scientist or other proctoid. Ethnographers, behavioural scientists yes but they will have different ways to cognise it.
In creativity, selection and omission are just as important as inclusion. Semiotics sees every work as a text, a machine for generating meaning. The analyst focuses on the syntax and how swapping out frame A instead of frame B shifts visual impact or connotations of a print ad, or how a different music track might transform our interpretation of a visual montage.
Semiotics is a mix of art and science, with models that stretch from brand proposition to creative execution. and but far from just codifying creativity it should be seen is the springboard to creativity. Semiotics does not constrain creatives, but rather helps expand the spaces in which to play. Oliver Perrin, advertising creative director turned rogue semiotician, has coined the phrase non-arbitrary creativity. And this is with the bonus that you can justify every creative decision. Semiotics is a holistic perspective. Only semiotics can help you express the ‘right sort of premium’.
the concept of liminality really ought to be getting a better press. It is fundamental to understanding semiotics. As above, so below, and so on…
Definition: the quality of being liminal: from ˈlɪmɪn(ə)l/ adjective – 1: relating to a transitional or initial stage of a process, or 2: occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold.
Out at dinner in Tallinn an Amercian planner client said that one of the reasons she so likes and respects semiotics was what we call cultural memory. Juri Lotman talked about this being one function of texts.
Douglas Copeland et al believe that we are living in the Extreme Present. This can be filed alongside associated ideas such as Accelerationism (technology disrupting corporate and state structures and sundering social bonds at increasing rates), Hypercycling (the idea of ever swifter turnover of cultural production and shorter obsolescence cycles), The Singularity (moving backwards from some future moment when the sum total of human intelligence is exceeded by AI), and Liquid Modernity (our bewilderment in the face of social rules that changing faster than we can adapt to them)
“What we’re inhabiting is no longer in the distance but in this state of very profoundly accelerating flux” “We have more and more information and less and less memories. Maybe amnesia is at the core of the digital age and that leads us onto this paradox. Hoarding is the central impulse of our age”. McLuhan and the narcissus narcosis and anaesthetic secreted by every technology as it rearranged our senses.
A semiotician should have a well stocked archive of legacy content from the past that helps them to situate new phenomena and to inoculate us against the amnesia of the 24/7 media circus. What to a shallow trend scout is a novelty, is to seasoned semiotician simply another twist of the cultural churn.
General Patton once said. ‘if everyone is thinking the same, then someone is not thinking’. Semiotics is renowned for being ornery and to step outside dominant discourses. In Adbusters issue ‘A Spiritual Crisis of Identity’ Gavin Mueller writes that alternative media have been co-opeted with nefarious interests. Umberot Eco ‘communication guerrillas’ and the Culture Jammers ethos ‘intervene in the flow of media… to inculcate viewers iwith a critical perspective. We live in disorientating times with Fake News, weaponised memes shitstorm of polemic, claim and counter-claim online would seem to demand a proto-semiotic vigilance because’ people are surrendering to a willingness to duspeced belief and submit to confirmation bias.. In a time where Jaron Lanier and others are counselling to unplug and ditch social media, we need to guard our grills. It is the conscience of meaning..” Global semiotics has a de-totalizing function to carry out: proposing a critique of stereotypes, norms and ideology…” As per my piece on Fake news it is very
Semiotics is more of a perspective and set of methods for analysis than a unified field. Semiotics itself is an accretion of individuals working in logic, linguistics, structural anthropology, journalism, cultural studies and art theory. It is inherently inter-displinacy. Roland Posner writes that… “semiotics is a discipline which studies everything there is from the perspective of its functioning in sign processes.”
A good example would be an enquiry into the meaning in music. Ethnomusicology, cognitive science and cultural anthropology in and of themselves fail to account for aspects of musical meaning.
Semiotics is the only methodology to blend and bind them together to work out a holistic picture that includes subjectivity, cognition and our cultural conditioning. Semiotics is inherent inter-disciplinary. Semiotics research is usually bundled in with other methodologies so apply techniques of reading alongside qualitative research, or crowdsourcing and then needs to feed in insight accordingly.
Mark Taylor in his 2012 Semiofest Keynote speech complimented the openness of semiotics.
“It’s that you are quite a generous bunch. You’re quite open in your thinking, you’re very collaborative, from my experience, with other people who might be a part of the brand development process. There isn’t that preciousness that sometimes you get with more traditional research agencies and individuals. Semioticians seem to me to be quite genuinely interested in lots of things. It brokers chat and conversation, which is a real big value of a semiotic piece of analysis.”
Semiotics as Creative Agency Adjunct – CREATIVE IDEATION
One future for semiotics is as the handmaiden for creatives. Semiotics as has been covered above is the most supple and creative friendly of those disciplines that examine unconscioius factors. This is partly because it is practiced by those who have one foot in culture and are often creatives and artists in their own right. It is also because semiotic. Oliver Perrin, for one, believes that semiotics should be closer to the creative department than to qualitative research or even planning. Perrin writes: “the semiotician answers, to a certain extent, the need for systematic creativity in the crafting of meaning…they differ from creative directors, copywriters and their colleagues in one very important way: any semiotician worth the name will always be able to explain to you precisely why a given signifier is likely to work”.
When I give my semiotics seminar at the School of Creative Arts in Brixton, it is not to stultify them with a stupefying monolithic account of how culture works.it is to inspires students to understand how many levers of influence there are to pull in their work and just how many tricks of the trade they can employ to create and manipulate meaning. My business is called Creative Semiotics so I am clearly biased in this . I have gone as far as creating 9 short animated films just to show my commitment to creativity and to show that semiotics is in itself a creative pursuit – there is a performance of intellect going on. Oscar Wilde wrote as much in his famous essay 'The Critic as Artist' "Without the critical faculty there is not artistic creation at all worthy of the name…Criticism is itself an Art.” In the future I see a semiotics app or avatar, acting as a co-creative adjutant ‘riding pillion’ during the creative process, bringing up a drop down menu for each potential colour on the palette or radio during CAD alerting the design to the various interpretive routes afforded by each of the potential choice or for each of the slots during a film edit – and this will be pulled in through semantic search and tagging of various texts.
Syntagmatic relations reflect the admissible combinations of paradigmatic sets into well-formed structures, e.g., conjunction.
Semiotics as Brand Stewardship – BRAND ARCHITECTURE
A client once said that ‘I love the provocation, but too many of you in house would make the company unworkable’. Semioticians are often outsiders because the provocative point of view they are valued for requires a level of intellectual and ethical independence. In spite of this Another potential home for semiotics appears to be in house. This is the value of semiotics to act as cogency counter glue of meaning
At Semiofest 2014 in Shanghai Martina Olbertova proposed a Brand Curation Methodology for idea managing ‘brand meaning’ inside companies. Olbertova describes Brand Curation as a systematic shaping of brand meaning on a holistic level. She argues that a “Brand’s inner clutter easily results into brand fragmentation and image inconsistency, which both drive awareness and brand perception further down the hill. When what it should be focusing on is brand meaning (symbolic value of a brand)."
This dovetails somewhat with what Chicago based brand strategist and designer Michael Colton wrote about design semioticians going in house poacher turned gamekeeper if you like, and sitting across individual design accounts in order to become more strategic Corporate Brand Guidelines champion.
Colton writes that “in addition to operating only as an outside consultant, contracted as analysts who informs meaning, the semiotician can further add value as a synthesist who curates meaning. In this form, the semiotician is not an outside consultant. The semiotician is rather an internal steward, insuring that the deployment of brand codes and signs are precisely meaningful and resoundingly desirable.”
Semiotics as Quantifiable Index – BRAND VALUE AND EQUITY
In 2008 I wrote an opinion piece for the Journal of Consumer Research entitled Semiotics: A Winning Formula? In which I explored the possibility of a metric for comparing brands using semiotics. I suggested that a working committee of semiotics practitioners should be convened to think about how to measure signifying practice and to come up with a balanced scorecard formula (akin to the NFL passer rating, working alongside a team of econometricians and financiers).
I have already wondered about the reliability and standardizability of brand indexes both overall and wondered how anyone could take seriously an index that lacks a semiotic appraisal of a brand meaning.
For instance, Meaningful Brands is an initiative from Havas Group that measures and ranks brand value. But the Havas survey for all its fanfare measures only financial tracking and brand health, not cultural connotations or emotional resonances – semiotics could certainly play
There have been attempts to quantify semiotic insights. Semiometrie’s tool developed by TNS was licensed to Channel 4 in order to match brands to relevant media programming through psychographic and demographic data was one such tool. But as covered above in the Big Data section we appear to be on cusp of being able to automatically register all sorts of text, and to dig into the detail to extract details such as connotations, inter-textual resonances and the incidence of cultural currents, genres. Once image recognition and other scraping or data mining tools manage to do the same for all proprietary (owned), earned or paid for media occurrences of brand touch points then that will be a game changer. We will be able to correlate brand material with the cultural currents within which they swim and look at the popularity, fecundity of these thus create a formula to calculate the felicity and likely future success that cleave towards resonant cultural currents and undergo with a degree of algorithmic certainty.
“The Never Ending Image Learner (NEIL) proposed in  is a massive visual knowledge base fed by a crawler that runs 24 hour a day to extract semantic content from images on the Web in terms of objects, scenes, attributes and their relations.”
Semiotics Guerrillas as Mental Freedom Fighters – DECODEURS
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Tim Stock said that semioticians are the ‘epidemiologists of culture’ we should be giving the early warning systems of new things happening. As Maasik and Solomon write, “the political interpretation of popular culture, even it is not conducted under the name of semiotics, is already a common practice. The semiotic method simply makes it explicit… the political values that guide our social behavior are often concealed behind images that don’t look political at all. But that is because we have to look beyond what a sign of pop culture denotes, or directly shows, to what it connotes or indirectly suggest….to its political or cultural significance”
With the proliferation of news stories and the fears around ‘fake news’ the left leaning French
newspaper has launched their own site of dedicated fact checkers, inevitably termed Les
Decodeurs in order to designate their mission to cut through thickets of misinformation
decoding the dissimulation, mendacity and sophistry to distinguish the genuine from fraud.
Barthes talked about semioclasm. Arguably semioclasm and semio-guerrillas are already out there. Street art, hip-hop and stand up are all good examples of deconstructing mores. Street art mashing together, lampooning authority through turning public space into protest, juxtaposing the, exploration of social conventions in stand up and the view from the hip-hop which is a post-strucuturalist – and hip-hop are about trashing official discourse, decodes institutional structures such as racism, prejudice and
Outsiders like comedians tend to be liminal peopein between cultures – deracinated in some way.
Semiotics as an Image Search Engine – VISUAL INTELLIGENCE
The web still struggles to pick up and classify visual content. As Susan Etlinger writes: “people no longer communicate online simply via written content…they upload and share billions of photos every day. This can be both exciting and terrifying from a brand perspective, because approximately 80% of images that includelogos do not directly refer to the brand with associated text. As a result, organizations are missing the meaning of images and are unable to act on the opportunities or risks they present”
“The opportunity for organizations to make sense of images isn’t just about recognition and analysis, however; it’s about image intelligence – the ability to detect and analyse images, develop predictive models based upon them, and use these models in context with other data sources to forecast and act on emerging trends, develop business cases, detect and mitigate crises, and a host of other uses”. In the report Altimeter identify uses such as Brand Health, Marketing Optimization and Innovation Strategy.
But the state of the art of this visual intelligence is still lamentably rudimentary and unfit for purpose. This is exemplified by mistaken ‘false positives’ for instance a ‘puppy or bagel’ error on Reddit in 2016.
It is thus only natural that Web experts are keen to explore semiotic frameworks that promise to produce better results than pure semantics to develop smarter, more intuitive human image inferencing engines.
So computational linguists are resorting to semiotics to transcend the narrowness of ontologies and to bridge the so called ‘semantic gap’ between query concepts and classifiers in terms of image retrieval. The researchers in a fascinating, if technical 2015 International Journal on Advances in Software paper Volume 8, Numbers 3 & 4 entitled ‘Query Interpretation – An Application of Semiotics in Image Retrieval’:
“In conclusion, applying semiotic relations in query expansion over an external, generic knowledge base,
contributes to a higher quality semantic match between query concepts and classifier labels, and also significantly
improves image retrieval performance compared to a baseline with only synonym expansions.”
“With the continuous effort Google is making in transitioning from an Internet of Strings (just based on the signifiers) to an Internet of Things, we should soon need to talk of the passage from Semantics to Semiotics in Search. Semiotics goes further than Semantics does, into implying how every single person may relate to signs. Semiotics is… complementary to Philosophy of Language, and collides with other humanistic disciplines that are becoming needed parts of search marketers’ cultural baggage.”
Semiotics as Cognitive Metering – SELF QUANTIFICATION
Ray Kurzweil is a techno-utopian predicting that the sum total of human intelligence will be superceded by AI some time around 2045. This will herald a world where human and machine intelligences merge. In this Branve New World we will benefit from cognitive prostheses, upload our conscious to artificial neural nets or share cognition with non-biological substrates. If we take a more optimistic view we can see an opportunity for a computer semiotics to monitor what is going on. It seems like everything is pointing to the gap between information and our brains collapsing. What happens when the interface between mind and data and external symbols vanishes entirely? We may not just want to measure the glucose and joules of energy expended in cognition but what sort of meaning has been registered there.
Jolly writes that greatly enhanced capacity for fine grained: “brings in the idea of an emergent and expanded sensoriality. What experiences come about when the senses start to work in new ways? How do things shift and change when we tune into experience more precisely?”
It is possible to see a confluence of semiotics and the self-quant movement – the link could be cyber -semiotics – the homoestasis of the future cyborg will b – a constant monitoring of bio-chemical signs, symptoms as a proxy for well being will come first. But what about empathy and our mental health?
For an example of what can go wrong, the emotional valence reverser in Black Museum of Black Mirror.
For this in order to create a truly humanistic set of wetware we need to translate from sensory stimulus into meaning. For this we can’t just rely on cognitive science, which is mostly culturally illiterate or at least indifferent. And Terence Deacon who has been beating the drum for years for a neuro-semiotic discipline believes to bring more humanity and accounting for meaning to neuroscience
We need to translate from the forms of experience into some way of classifying qualia for our mood. Or we will fall into the sort of reductionism that Facebook was accused of when creating a range of emojis. Too crude a beast – only semiotics has the finesse, ability to conjure with liminality…
Bio-semiotics and quantum computing in concert programmed to brain and body scan our organism.
Semiotics as Content Triage – MENTAL SELF DEFENSE
Semiotics is increasingly moving from analysing signs and symbols that we ponder on and where we negotiate meaning to more aggressive semiotics signals and supernormal stimuli that assault our senses. These proliferating signs, click bait like memes, viral videos, GIFs, online games, earworms and other insidious micro-texts work us over via reflex and by hijacking our reward system. The Attention Economy means that – As Edward Wilson has it – when splitting our attention online, we are like drunk people. People leave off both dating sites and gaming sites less satisfied than when they started. Social media can connect us but also gives us status anxiety, needing more stimulation, leaves us feeling more alone, and potentially feeds compulsivity and narcissism. Smartphone addiction us a thing and this does not even go into the perils of porn addiction, YouTube burn out and some even darker aspects of this.
If the shadow of the Industrail Revolution was colonialism, economic exploitation, and latterly ecological degradation, people are starting to talk about the shadow of the digital revolution being a mental health crisis. Nicholas in his book The Shallows talked about and in his latest book The Glass Cage he. Jaron Lanier in a series of the books, You are not a Gadget, Who Owns the Future and his latest, has warned about the perils of being ensnared within the
The way we interact is set to become more multi-sensorial with Visual ASMR, Multi-Sensory, Visual haptics, and the imamenses – but we don’t have to wait for this for semiotics to find its relevance.
This ties in with the Affective Turn. Paul Cobley discussed this at Semiofest 2012. Malcolm Evans gave us an updated version at Tallinn, 2016.In the Cultural Implications of Bio-Semiotics blah blah blah. And to realise that bio-semiotics incorporates the different levels at which meaning becomes embodied which lins in wththe cognitive semiotics – embodied semioticians such as Jamin Pelkey, Lokoff Johnson.
Wanting Versus Liking by Decode and Duncan berry – neurosemitics for emotional triggers.
I have long believed that semiotics has an important function in protecting our mental and cognitive well-being. I have meditated every day since the turn of the Millenium and wrote a very geeky paper entitle Into the Realm of Zeroness for Semiotica on the phenomenology of somatic-embodied semiotics. In Buddhism, signlessness, the cessation of semiosis in the mind is one of the marks of enlightenment.
Fabio Rambelli writes: “semiosis…is the cause of ignorance, attachment, illusion and suffering. [in various forms of meditation and mindfulness techniques] a gradual reduction in seed production (and semiotic activity) results in the purification of …the mind” Could be semiotics be put to reduce semiosis?