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Semiotics vs. Semiology

posted: 4.10.14 by Jack Solomon

The theme of this blog, as well as Signs of Life in the U.S.A., is, of course, the practice of the semiotic analysis of popular culture in the composition classroom and in any course devoted to popular cultural study.  But it is worth noting that my choice of the word “semiotics,” rather than “semiology,” is grounded in a meaningful distinction.  For while the words “semiotics” and “semiology” are often interchangeable (they both concern the analysis of signs), there is a technical distinction between them that I’d like to explain here.

To begin with, “semiology” is the study first proposed by Ferdinand de Saussure, and came to be developed further into what we know today as structuralism.  “Semiotics,” on the other hand, is the term Charles Sanders Peirce coined (based on the existing Greek word “semiotikos”) to label his studies.  But the difference is not simply one of terminology, because the two words refer to significantly different theories of the sign.

Semiology, for its part—especially as it evolved into structuralism—is ultimately formalistic, taking signs (linguistic or otherwise) as being the products of formal relationships between the elements of a semiological system.  The key relationship is that of difference, or as Saussure put it, “in a language system there are only differences without positive terms.”   The effect of this principle is to exclude anything outside the system in the formation of signs: signs don’t refer to extra-semiological realities but instead are constituted intra-semiologically through their relations to other signs within a given system.  Often called “the circle of signs” (or even, after Heidegger, ‘the prison house of language”), sign systems, as so conceived, constitute reality rather than discover or signify it.  It is on this basis that poststructuralism—from Derridean deconstruction to Baudrillardian social semiology to Foucaultian social constructivism—approaches reality: that is, as something always already mediated by signs.  Reality, accordingly, effectively evaporates, leaving only the circle of signs.

Semiotics, in Peirce’s view, is quite different, because it attempts to bring in an extra-semiotic reality that “grounds” sign systems (indeed, one of Peirce’s terms for this extra-semiotic reality is “ground”).  Peirce was no naïve realist, and he never proposes that we can (to borrow a phrase from J. Hillis Miller) “step barefoot into reality,” but he did believe that our sign systems not only incorporate our ever-growing knowledge of reality but also can give access to reality (he uses the homely example of an apple pie recipe as a sequence of semiotic instructions that, if followed carefully, can produce a real apple pie that is not simply a sign).

For me, then, Peircean “semiotics” brings to the table a reality that Saussurean/structuralist/poststructuralist “semiology” does not, and since, in the end, I view the value of practicing popular cultural semiotics as lying precisely in the way that that practice can reveal to us actual realities, I prefer Peirce’s point of view, and, hence, his word.  But that doesn’t mean I throw semiology out the window.  As readers of this blog may note, I always identify the principle of difference as essential to a popular cultural semiotic analysis: that principle comes from semiology.  For me, it is a “blindness and insight” matter.  Saussure had a crucial insight about the role of difference in semiotic analysis, but leaves us blind with respect to reality.  Peirce lets us have reality, but doesn’t note the role of difference as cogently as Saussure.  So, in taking what is most useful from both pioneers of the modern study of signs, we allow the two to complement each other, filling in one’s blindness with the other’s insight, and vice versa.

Add to this the fact that Peirce has a much clearer role for history to play in his theory of the sign than Saussure (and his legacy) has, and the need for such complementarity becomes even more urgent.  And finally, when we bring Roland Barthes’ ideological approach to the sign (he called it “mythology”) into the picture, we fill in yet another gap to be found in both Saussure and Peirce.  Put it all together—Peircean reality and history, Saussurean difference, and Barthesian mythology—and you get the semiotic method as I practice it.

And it works.

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