Arthur Asa Berger
Cultural Criticism: Semiotics and Cultural Criticism

In this chapter I address some of the basic concepts in semiotics, to show how it enables us to find meaning in texts and other phenomena. I try to explain each concept as simply as possible, and I quote extensively from important passages written by various authorities, to give the reader some idea of how these writers  express themselves. There is, however, a certain amount of technical language involved with semiotic analysis that cannot be avoided. There are many advanced books on semiotics available or those who wish to pursue the study of semiotic theory and applied semiotic analysis; interested readers will find several such titles in the list of suggested further reading that follows the final chapter in this volume.

Semiotics can be seen as a form of applied linguistics; semiotic malysis has been applied to everything from fashion to advertis- ing, from James Bond stories to Star Wars. The most fundamental concept in semiotics is the sign; semiotic theorists posit human beings as sign-making and sign-interpreting animals. It is with signs that this discussion of semiotics and cultural criticism begins.

Signs in Semiotics and Semiology

Semiotics is, literally speaking, the science of signs. The word semiotics comes from the Greek root semeion, or sign, and is used to describe a systematic attempt to understand what signs are and how they function. Semiotics is probably the more commonly used term, but some students of signs use the term semiology,  literally "words" (togas) "about signs" . Semiotics  is associated with the work of the Americon philosopher, C S Peirce (although its roots are in medieval philosophy) and semiology with the work of the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. Both are concerned with how meaning is genereated and and communicated.  In his posthumousty published book A  Course in General Linguistics, Saussure (1966) states
 

Language is a system of signs that express ideas, and is therefore comparable to a system of writing, the alphabet of deaf-mutes, military signals, etc. But it is the most important of all these systems.  A science that studies the life of signs within society is conceivable it would be part of social psychology and consequently of general psychology; I shall call it semiology (from Greek, semeion "sign") Semiology would show what constitutes signs, what laws govern them. (p. 16)


This may be looked upon as one of the charter statements about semiotics / semiology. Saussure suggests that signs are made of two parts: a signifier (sound, object, image, or the like) and a signified (concept). The relation that exists between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary, based on convention, or, to use the technical term, unmotivated. Because of this fact, we develop and use codes to help us learn what some signs mean.

In addition, Saussure asserts that concepts do not mean anything in themselves; they gain their meanings only relationally  or differentially: "Concepts are purely differential and defined not by their positive characteristics but negatively by their relations with the other  terms of  the system" (p.ll7). For all practical purposes, the most important relationship among terms is binary opposition.

One difference between semiotics and semiology is that semiotics draws its basic ideas from a trichotomy elaborated by C. S  Peirce (1931-1935,1958). According to Peirce, there are three kinds  of signs-icons, indexes, and symbols:

Every sign is determined by its object, either first, by partaking ir the characters of the object, when I call a sign an Icon; secondly, b) being really and in its individual existence connected with the in- dividual object, when I call the sign an Index; thirdly, by rnon! or les! approximate certainty that it will be interpreted as denoting the object, in consequence of a habit (which term I use as including 2 natural disposition), when I call the sign a Symbol. (quoted in Zeyman 1977,p.36)

Because semiotics is concerned with everything that can be seen as a sign, and given that just about everything can be seen as a sign (that is, substituting for something else), semiotics emerges as a kind of master science that has utility in all areas of knowledge, especially in the humanities, arts, and social sciences. It has been used, as noted above, in criticism of the fine arts, literature, film, and popular fiction as well as in interpreting architecture, in studying fashion, in analyzing facial expression, in interpreting magazine advertisements and radio and television commercials, in medicine, and in many other areas. Let us consider signs now in a bit more detail, with a focus on how they function.

How Signs Function

A sign can also be defined as anything that can be used to stand for something else, but understanding how signs function is some-what complicated, because, for Peirce and semioticians, there are always "others" involved. According to Peirce, a sign "is something which stands to somebody for something in some respect or capacity" (1977, p. 27). He adds a philosophical point:

It seems a strange thing, when one comes to ponder over it, that a sign should leave its interpreter to supply part of its meaning; but the explanation of the phenomenon lies in the fact that the entire universe-not merely the universe of existents, but all that wider universe, embracing the universe of existents as a part, the universe which we are all accustomed to refer to as "the truth"-that all this universe is perfused with signs, if it is not composed exclusively of signs. (Peirce; epigraph in Sebeok, 1977, p. vi)

If the universe is perfused with, if not composed exclusively of, signs, then humans are, of necessity, semiotic animals-whatever else they may be (rational creatures, tool makers, featherless bipeds, and so on). Umberto Eco (1976) has added an insight worth considering. If signs can be used to tell the truth, they can also be used to lie:
 

Semiotics is concerned with everything that can be taken as a sign. A sign is everything which can be taken as significantly substituting for something else. This something else does not necessarily have to exist or to actually be somewhere at the moment in which a sign stands for it. Thus semiotics is in principle the discipline studying everything which can be used in order to lie. If something cannot be used to tell a lie, conversely it cannot be used to tell the truth; it cannot be used "to tell" at all. (p. 7)


Phenomena such as wigs, dyed hair, elevator shoes, imitation foods, impersonators, and impostors all involve "lying" with signs.  Saussure (1966) first describes signs as being made of a concept and a sound-image: "The linguistic sign unites, not a thing and a name, but a concept and a sound-image" (p. 66). He later modifies his definition:
 

 I propose to retain the word sign [signe] to designate the whole and to replace concept and sound-image respectively by signified [singifie] and signifier [signifiant]; the last two terms have the advantage of in- dicating the opposition that separates them from the whole of which they are parts. (p. 67)


He uses the term semiology to describe the science that would study "the life of signs within society," originally placing semiol- ogy within social psychology. He suggests that a sign is like a piece of paper: One side is the signifier and the other is the signified, and together they make the sign/ sheet of paper. Symbols, however, are a different matter.
 

Symbols in Saussure's System

A symbol is a subcategory of a sign. It is a sign whose mean- ing is not completely arbitrary or conventional. Saussure (1966) explains:
 

The word symbol has been used to designate the linguistic sign, or more specifically, what is here called the signifier. ...One charac- teristic of the symbol is that it is never wholly arbitrary; it is not empty, for there is the rudiment of a natural bond between the signifier and the signified. The symbol of justice, a pair of scales, could not be replaced by just any other symbol, such as a chariot. (p. 68)


Peirce sees the symbol as conventional, unlike the icon and index, which are not conventional in his view of things.

What is important about symbols is that they stand for something, they convey meanings. These meanings are often connected to historical events, traditions, and so on. The symbol, generally an object or an image, because it can represent historical events, because it "contains" all kinds of extraneous matters connected to it, because it can be a repository of meanings, because it can have so many connotations, can become very important to people. Think of religious icons, for example. Carl Jung (1968) explains this matter in some detail in his book Man and His Symbols:
 

 Thus a word or an image is symbolic when it implies something more than its obvious and immediate meaning. It has a wider "unconscious" aspect that is never precisely defined or fully explained. Nor can one hope to define or explain it. As the mind explores the symbol, it is led to ideas that lie beyond the grasp of reason. (p. 4)


We are profoundly affected by symbolic phenomena, Jung suggests, all the time-when we are awake and when we dream.

As Freud has pointed out, in our dreams we use the processes of symbolic condensation and displacement to disguise our real thoughts and desires and evade the dream censor. It would wake us up if it recognized the sexual content of our dreams, as mani- fested, for example, in phallic symbols and symbols of the female genitals. In our visual and literary arts we also use symbolization in an attempt to generate certain responses-assuming there is common understanding of what specific symbols mean (which is not always the case, of course).

In literary criticism, for example, we often find that the study of symbolism in texts is connected with an investigation of their mythic elements-what might be called a myth and symbol school of analysis. Heroes and heroines in novels and plays and films often have symbolic dimensions: What they say and what they do often are symbolic and allegorical as well as connected, indirectly, to the actions of ancient mythic heroes and heroines. That is why some critics argue that all texts are intertextually related to other texts, even though audiences may not be aware of the fact or the creators of texts aware of what they have done.

It is because texts of all kinds-fi1ms, television programs, novels, plays, works of visual art-are full of symbolic phenomena (objects, actions of characters, geographic locations, and so on) that they resist easy interpretation. Their symbolic (and mythic) aspects make them extremely complex, and so they are seldom easily understood.

Icon, Index, Symbol: Peirce's System

In Peirce's theory of semiotics there are three kinds of signs: icons, which communicate by resemblance; indexes, which com- municate by logical connection; and symbols, which are purely conventional and whose meanings have to be learned. Peirce developed an extremely involved theory of signs, but it rests on the cornerstone of his trichotomy-icon, index, and symbol. He differs from Saussure, who argues that the relationship between a signifier (sound, object) and its signified (concept) is arbitrary and based on convention (except in the case of the symbol, where the relationship is quasi-motivated or quasi-natural).

In Peirce's theory, both icons and indexes have natural relation- ships with what they stand for: for example, a portrait of someone and the person being portrayed (an icon) and smoke indicating fire (an index). The meanings of symbols, on the other hand, have to be learned. Table 4.1 presents Peirce's trichotomy in graphic form. Semiotics is important, Peirce argues, because the universe is in essence a system of signs. Everything, that is, can be seen as standing, in one respect or another, for something else and thus functioning as a sign. Let us now look at one aspect of Peirce's trichotomy in a little more detail.

Table 4.1 Pierce's Trichotomy



 
Kind of Sign Icon Index Symbol 


 
Example
Signify by
Process
paintings 
resemblance
can see 
smoke/fire
causal connection
can figure out
words, flags
convention
must learn 

An image is conventionally understood to be a visible repre- sentation of something, though it can also be a mental picture of something (such as the image of the businessman as found in early-20th-century American literature). We live in a world of photoelectronic images, and with the development of television, all kinds of images that we never would have seen in real life are now brought to us, in mediated form, on the video tube. As the result of developments in printing, photography, and video, im- ages play an increasingly important role in our lives. Indeed, some scholars suggest that we have moved from a logocentric (word-centered) to an occulocentric (image-centered) world, with sight exercising hegemony or domination over our other senses.

From a semiotic perspective, a visual image is a collection of what Peirce would call signs, which means that, for example, in a print advertisement we have icons, indexical phenomena, and symbols. Icons are relatively easy to interpret because they communicate by resemblance, but understanding indexical signs in- volves finding some kind of a relationship between signs and their meanings, and symbols are purely conventional, which means we must learn their meanings. In considering images with which we are not familiar, such as paintings from earlier periods, we may not recognize the symbology, so our understanding of the messages conveyed in such images may be relatively primitive.

Let me offer an example. In the painting by Ian Van Eyck titled Giovanni Arnolfini and His Bride, painted in 1434, we find a number of symbols whose meanings are not evident to most people in the late 20th century. The painting shows a man holding hands with his wife (who looks pregnant and has her hand on her stomach) in an ornate room. Behind the two figures we see a convex mirror, lighted candles in a chandelier, and a small table with fruit on it. In front of the couple we see a dog. Table 4.21ists the symbolic objects or representations in the painting and their meanings for people of the period.
 
 
Table 4.2 Symbols and Meanings in a 15th-Century Painting 
Symbol Meaning


lighted canle in chandelier
convex mirror
dog
bride's hand on her stomach
fruit on table 
presence of Christ, ardor of the couple
eye  of God
marital faithfulness
willingness to bear children
Virgin Mary 

Today, most would not know the meanings of many of these symbols (or even recognize that candles and dogs could have symbolic meaning), but the symbology would have been evident to many people living in 1434. Just as we may not recognize the significance of symbolic phenomena from earlier times, we may be blind to the symbolic significance of phenomena from different cultures.

When we look at an image (a painting, an advertisement, a work of sculpture, an object) we can look at it in two opposing ways, according to art historian Alois Riegl. Claude Gandelman (1991) discusses Riegl's theories:

Riegl stated that one type of artistic procedure, which corresponds to a certain way of looking, is based on the scanning of objects according to their outlines. This trajectory Riegl called the optical. The opposite type of vision, which focuses on surfaces and emphasizes the value of the superficies of objects, Riegl called the haptical (from the Greek haptein, "to seize, grasp" or haptikos, "capable of touching:").

On the level of artistic creation, the optical look-if the eye belongs to the painter-produces linearity and angularity, whereas haptic creativity focuses on surfaces. Using Riegl's formula, all forms of art may be grouped under the heading "Outline and/or color in plane and volume." ...The optical eye merely brushes the surface of things. The haptic, or tactile, eye penetrates in depth, finding its pleasure in textile and grain. (p. 5)


From the haptic perspective, vision becomes a form of touching. Riegl was not the first person to deal with this notion (it is found in the work of Descartes and Berkeley, also, Gandelman points out), but his calling our attention to these two opposing ways of perception is important. It is also possible, of course, to combine these two perspectives.

If seeing haptically is a form of touching, it would suggest that our relation to images is much more complicated than we might suppose. We do not simply glance at images and put them out of our minds; our experience of looking is much more powerful than that. This might explain, in part, the phenomenon of scopophilia, literally "looking (scopo) loving (philia)," a psychological phenomenon involving people who derive sexual pleasure from looking at others or, in the case of autoscopophilia, from looking at themselves.

Images, then, play a significant role in our lives, whether we recognize this to be the case or not. They have to be interpreted, and this takes a good deal of work, for it is not always easy to understand how images function.  Cultural critics have, in recent years, expanded upon their interest in images and now talk about the phenomenon of representation. This concept (addressed previously, in Chapter 3) deals with images of all kinds in the context of the social and political order in which these images are found, and considers such matters as who creates images, who controls the image making in a society (especially images generated and spread by the mass media), and the functions these images have for the sociopolitical order and for individuals.

Codes

At the simplest level, codes are systems for interpreting the meanings of various kinds of communication in which the meanings are not obvious or evident. Consider the two apparently meaningless "words" below;
 
 

D P E F T
B N C D R

As soon as I tell you that the codes for interpreting these series of letters are, respectively, plus 1 and minus 1, you can easily find that both are coded ways of saying codes:
 
 

D P E F T
C O D E S
B N C D

In the world of espionage, messages are often coded (so that if they are somehow intercepted they will not be understood). The same applies to the world of culture. Much of what we see and hear around us in our culture carries messages, but because we do not know the codes that enable us to find the meanings in these messages, we do not pay any attention to them, or, if we do,  we tend to interpret them incorrectly. We also tend to be blind to the codes that we have learned because they seem natural to us; we do not realize that when we find meaning in things, we are actually decoding signs. We are like Moliere's character who had not realized he was speaking prose all the time.

There are in every society, semioticians suggest, culture codes- hidden structures (in the sense that we are not aware of them or pay no attention to them) that shape our behaviour. These codes deal with aesthetic judgments, moral beliefs, cuisine, and many other things. They are directive and generally are highly articulated and specific, even though those who use them tend to be unaware of them. We need codes because we need consistency in our lives. Codes vary in scope from the universal to the local.

If the relationship between a word and the object it stands for, or a signifier and a signified, is arbitrary and based on convention, as Saussure suggests, and symbols are purely conventional, as Peirce suggests, then we need codes to tell us how to know what words mean and what signifiers and symbols mean. The meaning is arbitrary, based on convention, not natural. Thus, by extension, what we call culture can be looked upon as a collection or system of codes, analogous in many respects to language.

Terence Hawkes (1977) addresses this relationship; in discuss- ing the work of the French cultural anthropologist Claude Levi- Strauss, he writes:
 

He attempts to perceive the constituents of cultural behaviour, ceremonies, rites, kinship relations, marriage laws, methods of cooking, totemic systems, not as intrinsic or discrete entities, but in terms of the contrastive relationships they have with each other that makes their structures analogous to the phonemic structure of language. (p.34)


Thus the work of cultural critics involves the process of decoding texts of various kinds in many different realms: words, images, objects, literary and subliterary works, social rituals, food prepa- ration, socialization of children, and numerous other areas.

Creators of texts that are distributed through mass media have a problem of difference between their own codes and the codes of the audiences for these texts, who may (and probably often do) decode them differently from the way the creators intended. In such cases, it is difficult to avoid what Umberto Eco calls , "aberrant decoding." This problem exists in oilier areas as well-for instance, when individuals who have been socialized (that is, have learned codes for behaviour) in subcultures become members of  mainstream institutions and have difficulty in behaving "properly" (e.g., when a member 0f a motorcycle gang becomes a student at a university).

We now move on to discussion of two concepts that affect cultural meaning in rather specific ways: connotation and denotation.

Connotation

Connotation is a term used to describe the cultural meanings attached to a term-and, by extension, an image, a figure in a text, or even a text. In contrast, denotation refers to the literal meaning of a term, figure, text, or so on. Connotation comes from the Latin connotare, "to mark along with." Thus connotation deals with the historic, symbolic, and emotional matters suggested by or that "go along with" a term.

Take the figure of James Bond as an example. From a denotative point of view, he is the hero of a number of popular spy novels and films. But the connotations of James Bond extend to such matters as sexism, racism, absurd images of the British held by others, Bond's personal idiosyncrasies, the nature of the British  intelligence establishment, the Cold War, images of Americans, and Russians, and so on.

In his Mythologies (1972), Roland Barthes deals with the mythic significance or what could be called the cultural connotations of a number of phenomena of everyday. life in France, such as wres- tling, steak and chips, toys, Garbo's face, and the striptease. His purpose is to take the world of "what-goes-without-saying" and show connotations (which reveal themselves generally to be ideo- logical matters) connected with them. For example, he notes in a discussion of toys in France:
 

French toys always mean something, and this something is always entirely socialized, constituted by the myths or the techniques of modern adult life: the Army, Broadcasting, the Post Office, Medicine. ..School, Hair-Styling. .., the Air Force (parachutists), Transport (trains, Citroens, Vedettes, Vespas, petrol-stations), Science (Martian toys). (p. 53)


These "somethings" are the connotations of these objects, which Barthes explores in some detail, with brilliant stylistic flourishes and imaginative reaches. He does the same thing for Japanese culture in Empire of Signs (1977, 1982).

We can make an analogy with Saussurean semiological theory here. In a sense, we can suggest that denotation is the signifier and connotation is the signified, recognizing, however, that one signifier can have many signifieds. From Peirce's perspective, connotation would involve the realm of the symbolic, in which conventions are crucial. The meaning of the symbol has to be learned, and a given symbol can have many different meanings. The process of condensation is also relevant here. An image in a dream can be made of many different images or parts of images, and the connection of these different images to one image is similar in nature to the process of connotation.

Denotation

Denotation involves taking terms literally (including images, sounds, objects, or other forms of communication), in contrast to connotation, which involves looking at the various meanings a term carries with it or has given to it. Denotation deals with the literal meaning a sign conveys. Thus a Barbie Doll denotes a toy doll, first marketed in 1959, that was 11.5 inches high, had measurements of 5.25 inches at the bust, 3.0 inches at the waist, and 4.25 inches at the hips (these measurements have changed in recent years). What we have here is a literal description of a Barbie Doll and no more. What Barbie Dolls connote is another matter, about which there are many different views. For example, some scholars have suggested that the introduction and subsequent great popularity of the doll (and others like it) mark the end of  motherhood as a dominant role for little girls in the United States, because Barbie spends her time as a "courtesan," buying clothes and having relationships with Ken and other dolls. She does not prepare little girls to be mothers, as earlier dolls did, dolls the girls could treat as babies, imitating their mothers' roles. A great deal of criticism involves examining the connotations of objects, characters, and images and tying these meanings to historical, cultural, ideological, and other concerns.

We turn now to a discussion of metaphor and metonymy, which noted linguist Roman Jakobson suggests are fundamental ways of generating meaning. (I list Jakobson as an American in Table 1.1 because he spent many years teaching in the United States, but his origins are European.)
 
 
Table 4.3  Comparison of Denotation and Connotation 
Denotation  Connotation 


literal figurative
signifier signified(s)
evident inferred
describes suggests meaning
realm of existence realm of myth 

Metaphor

Metaphors are figures of speech that communicate meaning by ana1o~ by explaining or interpreting one thing in terms of some- thing else {e.g., "My love is a red rose"). Similes also communicate by analogy, but in a weaker form that uses like or as {e.g., "My love is like a red rose"). Many people learn about metaphor in literature classes, where metaphor and simile are described as "figurative" language, and assume that metaphors are used only for poetic or literary purposes. They assume that metaphor is a relatively unimportant phenomenon. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (1980) argue to the contrary; they see metaphors as central to our thinking:

Most people think they can get along perfectly well without metaphor. We have found, on the contrary, that metaphor is pervasive in everyday life, not just in language but in thought and action. Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphoric in nature.

The concepts that govern our thought are not just matters of the intellect. They also govern our everyday functioning down to the most mundane details. Our concepts structure what we perceive, how we get around in the world, and how we relate to other people. Our conceptual system thus plays a central role in defining our everyday realities. (p. 3)

Metaphor, then, plays an important role in the way we think and pervades our thinking. It is not just a literary device used by poets and other writers to generate certain kinds of emotional responses; it is a fundamental part of the way humans think and communicate.

Lakoff and Johnson discuss a number of different kinds of metaphors. Among them are the following:

  structural metaphors, which shape how we think, perceive, and act
orientational metaphors, which deal with spatial orientation, as reflected in polar oppositions
ontological metaphors, which interpret life in terms of common objects and substances

We often use verbs metaphorically, as in the following: The ship sliced (the ship is a knife or is like a knife) through the waves. We could substitute other verbs-raced, cut, tore, or something else-and in each case a different meaning would be conveyed. Metaphor, then, is not limited to the figurative language one finds in poetry; rather, it is a fundamental means of generating meaning. The same applies to metonymy, which is discussed in the next section.

Metonymy

Metonymy is a figure of speech in which meaning is communicated by association, in contrast to metaphor, where meaning is communicated by analogy. The term metonymy is composed of two parts: meta, or transfer, and onoma, or name. Thus, literally speaking, metonymy is "substitute naming."

In an essay of considerable theoretical importance (and difficulty) on aphasia-a disease associated with brain damage that prevents people from expressing ideas-Roman Jakobson (1988) discusses the difference between metaphor and metonymy:

Every form of aphasic disturbance consists in some impairment, more or less severe, either of the faculty for selection and substitution or for combination and contexture. The former affliction involves a deterioration of metalinguistic operations, while the latter damages the capacity for maintaining the hierarchy of linguistic units. The relation of similarity is suppressed in the former, the relation of contiguity in the latter type of aphasia. Metaphor is alien to the similarity disorder, and metonymy to the contiguity disorder.  The development of a discourse may take place along two different semantic lines: one topic may lead to another either through their similarity or through their contiguity. The metaphoric way would be the most appropriate for the first case and the metonymic way for the second, since they find their most condensed expression in metaphor and metonymy respectively. (pp. 57-58)

We have, then, two polarities: metaphor and metonymy. Metaphor communicates by selection (a focus on the similarity between things) and metonymy by combination (a focus on the association in time and space between things). Simile is a weaker form of metaphor (using like or as) and synecdoche is a weaker form of metonymy (in which a part stands for the whole, or vice versa). These differences (and a number of others, drawn from other sections of Jakobson's article) are shown in Table 4.4.
 
 
Table 4.4 Comparison of Metaphor and Metonymy 
Metaphor Metonymy 



 
analog/similarity association/contiguity
selection combination
simile synecdoche
romanticism realism
surrealism (in paintings) cubism (in paintings)
poetry prose
Freud's identification and symbolism (in dreams) Freud's condensation and displacement (in dreams)

According to Jakobson, one can determine a writer's style based on how he or she uses these two rhetorical devices and which of these "poles" prevails. The distinction has relevance for any symbolic process, as Jakobson (1988) explains:
 

A competition between both devices, metonymic and metaphoric, is manifest in any symbolic process, be it interpersonal or social. Thus in an inquiry into the structure of dreams, the decisive question is whether the symbols and the temporal sequences are based on contiguity (Freud's metonymic "displacement" and synecdochic "condensation") or on similarity (Freud's "identification" and "symbolism").  (p. 60)

It is relatively easy to analyze metaphors, Jakobson adds, but dealing with metonymy is much more difficult, and the process, which he says "easily defies interpretation," has been relatively neglected.

What makes things even more complicated is that we frequently find the two processes mixed up together. Thus, an image of a snake in a painting or advertisement can function metaphorically as a phallic symbol and metonymically as suggesting the snake in the Garden of Eden. This reference to Eden has a historic aspect to it, which leads us to our next set of concepts, synchronic analysis and diachronic analysis.
 

Synchronic Analysis and Diachronic Analysis

Ferdmand de Saussure (1966) makes a distinction between static (synchronic) and evolutionary (diachronic) linguistics, a distinction that we now apply to modes of analyzing texts and cultural phenomena:

All sciences would profit by indicating more precisely the co- ordinates along which their subject matter is aligned. Everywhere distinctions should be made. ..between (1) the axis of simultaneities .., which stands for the relations of coexisting things and from which the intervention of time is excluded; and (2) the axis of successions ..., on which only one thing can be considered at a time but upon which are located all the things on the first axis together with their changes. (pp. 79-80)

Saussure further explains the difference between these two perspectives by suggesting that we imagine a plant. If we make a longitudinal cut in the stem of the plant, we see the fibers that " constitute the plant" (p. 87), but if we make a transverse cut (that is, a cross-sectional cut), we see the fibers in a certain relationship to one another-which we do not see when we look at the longitudinal cut. Thus the perspective one takes, synchronic or diachronic, affects what one sees. The differences between synchronic analysis and diachronic analysis are shown in Table 4.5. A person cannot deal with something from both synchronic and diachronic perspectives at the same time, Saussure adds, but both perspectives are necessary; Saussure makes this distinction as part of an argument for studying linguistics from a synchronic as well as a diachronic perspective.
 
 
Table 4.5  Comparison of Synchronic and Diachronic Analysis                                                                         
Synchronic Analysis  Diachronic Analysis 



 
Simultaneity 
Instant in Time
relations in a system
analysis is the focus
static
succession 
historical perspective
relations in time
development the focus
evolutionary 

Let us consider how the distinction between synchronic analysis and diachronic analysis applies to the study of media and popular culture. A person can focus on the way a given phenomenon, such as MTV or rap music, has evolved, or he or she can focus on the phenomenon at a given point in time, or he or she can use one perspective and then the other-bul one person cannot take both perspectives at the same time. This notion that the two approaches are mutually exclusive is similar to the figure and ground  phenomenon involved in an often-seen optical illusion: a picture of two silhouetted profiles that can be seen instead as the silhouette of a vase. One can look either at the figure and see the vase or at the ground and see the faces, but one cannot see both at the same time.

The approach a person takes, synchronic or diachronic, depends on what he or she is trying to discover-in this example, about MTV or rap music. If taking the synchronic view, the person would look at MTV or rap at a given point in time and try to relate it to cultural, social, and political matters. If taking the diachronic perspective, he or she would examine the way MTV or rap has evolved over the years, important figures in MTV or rap, and that kind of thing. Another way an investigator might look at rap music involves its relation to other forms of African American expression, such as the doubles, in which case he or she would be looking at it in terms of its historical connections.

Conclusion
Semiotics and semiology focus our attention on how people generate meanings--in their use of language, in their behaviour (body language, dress, facial expression, and so on), and in creative texts of all kinds. Everyone tries to make sense of human behaviour, in our everyday lives, in the novels we read, in the films and television shows we see, in the concerts we attend, in sports events we watch or participate in--humans are meaning-generating and meaning-interpreting animals, whatever else we are. We are always sending messages and always receiving and interpreting the messages others send us. What semiotics and semiology do is provide us with more refined and sophisticated ways of interpreting these messages-and of sending them. In particular, they provide us with methods of analyzing texts in cultures and cultures as texts.