Semiotics and Media

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    • 00:11

      ARTHUR ASA BERGER: My name is Arthur Asa Berger.[Arthur Asa Berger, Professor Emeritusof Broadcast and Electronic Communication Arts,San Francisco State University]I'm Professor Emeritus of Broadcastand Electronic Communication Arts at San Francisco StateUniversity.In this tutorial on semiotics in the media,I'm going to talk about the definition of semiotics,the ideas of two of its most important theorists,and how the signs we send sometimesare misconstrued by others.

    • 00:36

      ARTHUR ASA BERGER [continued]: [Semiotics]Semiotics is the science of signs.A sign is anything that can be usedto stand for something else.Things like hairstyle, body language, facial expression,those are all signs.And what semiotics does is teach ishow to find meaning in the signs that we're exposed to.

    • 00:56

      ARTHUR ASA BERGER [continued]: [Signifier and signified]One of the founding fathers of modern semioticsis Ferdinand de Saussure, a Swiss linguistwho wrote a book called Course in General Linguistics.This happens to be one of the most important books publishedin the 20th century.What Saussure argued is that the universe is made up of signs,and a sign is something that stands for something else.

    • 01:22

      ARTHUR ASA BERGER [continued]: What semiotics attempts to do is teach ushow to interpret signs.Now, Saussure said a sign is made upof a sound or an object and a meaning.He then said the sound object couldbe thought of as a signifier and the meaningor the concept generated by that sound or object isthe signified.

    • 01:43

      ARTHUR ASA BERGER [continued]: The relationship between the signifier and the signifiedis arbitrary.That is, there's no logical reasonwhy we call a tree a tree.We could have called it something else.That means that signs are rather complicated.We can't always be sure what the meaning is.

    • 02:04

      ARTHUR ASA BERGER [continued]: So when we watch a television program or go see a film,we are basically looking at the signsthat the actors and actresses are sendingto us through their body language,their facial expression, the clothes they're wearing,all the props that they have.And we interpret these things on the basis of our abilityto make sense of these things.

    • 02:25

      ARTHUR ASA BERGER [continued]: So you could argue that everyone is actually a practicingsemiotician, even though they may neverhave heard of the term.For example, when we go to a filmor watch a television program, weare functioning as amateur semioticians lookingat the facial expression of these actors,the clothes they're wearing, their body language, whatthey say.

    • 02:49

      ARTHUR ASA BERGER [continued]: All of these things are of interest to semioticians.Saussure has also had an impact on the study of film,and many scholars who do research on filmsuse semiotics to interpret the films that they're examining.[Iconic, indexical and symbolic signs]The second important theorist of semioticsis an American philosopher named Pierce.

    • 03:12

      ARTHUR ASA BERGER [continued]: [Charles Sanders Pierce]And Pierce wrote many, many volumesof complicated philosophical treatises about semiotics.But the most important aspect of semioticsas far as our study of the media is concernedis his theory about three different kinds of signs,iconic indexical, and symbolic.

    • 03:33

      ARTHUR ASA BERGER [continued]: Iconic signs signify by resemblance.That is, a photograph is an iconic sign.Indexical signs signify by cause and effect.If you see smoke coming out of a window,you have a good reason to suspectthat this fire in that house.But symbols are things we have to learn.

    • 03:53

      ARTHUR ASA BERGER [continued]: So we have to be taught the meaning of a crescentor a cross or a flag.We don't know that any other way.If you combine Saussure's ideas and Pierce's ideas,you have a number of techniques that you can useto help interpret media texts.And as a matter of fact, Saussure's ideasand Pierce's ideas are very important in film studiesnowadays, where many film scholarsuse semiotics to analyze films.

    • 04:23

      ARTHUR ASA BERGER [continued]: [Lying with signs]One of the most important contemporary semioticiansis an Italian professor, Umberto Eco,who's Professor of Semiotics at the University of Bolognain Italy.[Umberto Eco]One of the important points he makesis that semiotics involves lying with signs.In fact, he said if you can't lie with signs,you can't communicate.

    • 04:44

      ARTHUR ASA BERGER [continued]: You can't use signs.So there are many different instancesin which people lie with signs.For example, transvestite are men who lie with signs,they have women's dresses, they have women's hair,they walk around and high heels, and so forth.All those things are signs that they use to lie with,from a semiotic point of view.

    • 05:07

      ARTHUR ASA BERGER [continued]: And then, of course, many a blonde, as they say,dyes by her own hands.She's really a brunette or a person with black hairwho becomes a blonde.Now, the interesting thing is, peoplehave certain notions about what blondesare like, so that when you see a woman who's a brunettebut looks like a blonde, there's a certain amount of confusionthat set in.

    • 05:27

      ARTHUR ASA BERGER [continued]: [Interpreting signs]A number of years ago, I taught a coursein semiotics in television at San Francisco State University.One of the exercises I did was I asked the studentsto find some object that they thought signifiedsome aspect of their personality and put itin a brown paper bag.

    • 05:48

      ARTHUR ASA BERGER [continued]: They were also to put in a slip of paperwith a list of the attributes of that object.So the next week, my students assembled.They each brought in brown paper bagswith some kind of an object in it.I opened one of the bags and took out a shell--the actual shell that the woman brought inwas about six inches, quite a beautiful shell--and I asked the students in the classwhat that shell signified.

    • 06:18

      ARTHUR ASA BERGER [continued]: And what they said is it signifiedemptiness, sterility, death.Then I took the slip of paper out that the woman had put in,and she said it signified naturalness,beautifulness-- beauty, simplicity, elegance,things like that.So the moral is, we have a lot of trouble sometimesinterpreting what a sign is and how to interpret it correctly.

    • 06:48

      ARTHUR ASA BERGER [continued]: We can generalize from this to saythat the messages that we send about ourselves,often unconsciously, are often misconstrued by peoplewho are reading those messages.Semioticians argue we're always sending messages, all the time.Our facial expression, our body language, our hairstyle,the style of our eyeglasses, the kind of necktie we're wearing,the color of our shirt, everything is a sign.

    • 07:15

      ARTHUR ASA BERGER [continued]: And what people do is, they're always interpretingthose signs, but they're not always interpreting themcorrectly, or the way that we hopethat they would interpret them.[Key points, Semiotics: the science of signs, Theoriesof signs, Types of signs, Sending messages through signs,Using messages to interpret the media]In this tutorial, you learned about semiotics,the science of signs.There are several different theoriesabout the nature of signs, but the important thing to rememberis that we're always sending messages about ourselves.

    • 07:37

      ARTHUR ASA BERGER [continued]: And so people who study semioticsare interested in how they can use these messages to interpretwhat's going on in films and television programs.

Semiotics and Media

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Arthur Berger discusses semiotics as using the signifier and the signified to find meaning in communication and media.

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Semiotics and Media

Arthur Berger discusses semiotics as using the signifier and the signified to find meaning in communication and media.

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