Schirato, T. and Yell, S. “Signs and Meaning.” Communication and Cultural Literacy: An Introduction. Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 2000, 18-33

As the author says “this chapter deals with the relationship between signs and meanings” (p. 18). It explores the ideas of Ferdinand de Saussure who propounded that “meaning is relational” (p. 19) and that meanings in a language are produced by differences opposed to similarities. We can define a word or meaning only by what it isn’t in and how it relates to other words and meanings in “a semiotic system” (p. 22). However, due to humanity’s innate variation everyone has at least a slightly different view as to what these differences might be. In the reading this is addressed as meaning changing “depending on the relationship between different signifiers, and the context of those relations’ (p. 23).

Here signifier is referring to one half of Saussure’s  “linguistic sign” (p. 20), the other half of which is the “signified” or the idea elicited by the sign (p. 20). Furthermore, the relationship between them is “arbitrary” (p. 20) and thus unlikely to change, that in fact Saussure saw changes across time as “irrational forces ‘distorting the logical purity of the language system’” (p. 24). I find myself disagreeing here if I am interpreting this correctly. I have always thought that a main characteristic of language and the relationships between the words in that language was change and evolution of meaning. How else are recent appropriations of words like “wicked” and “tool” explained?

Therefore I wasn’t devastated when the author and Volosinov went on to point out flaws in Saussure’s ideas. For example, in contrast to Saussure the author states, “there are plenty of signs that are not intended” (p. 21) though this problem is explained to have been overcome in another theorist’s work. Furthermore, whether meaning can be seen as completely arbitrary is called into question and supported with a reference to Nietzsche: “production of meaning is always, first and foremost, a sign of power” (p. 22), a concept entirely relevant to media studies. I prefer Volosinov’s theory, where signs “are adaptable and changeable” (p. 26) and heavily influenced by ideology. This seems to me a more fitting way to view meanings, signs and semiotics rather than Saussure’s view of languages as “idealised, abstract machines” (p. 25).

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