Semiotics and Visual Communication

Communication 504, University of North Dakota

Category: Uncategorized

Teaching US to Fake It – Nick Couldry

by 504student

Roland Barthes’s analysis of “myth” and is used for the particular type of media language used, especially in reality television. “[Television’s] real value is to make people participants in ongoing experiences. Real life is vastly more exciting than synthetic life, and this is real-life drama with audience participation” (quoted in Marvin, 1999). 

Couldry looks at the series Big Brother (UK version) as a gamedoc. Big Brother operates under the claim that it is real “within a fully manages artificiality” (Corner, 2002). The concept of the show is to follow the lives of the housemates as they perform various tasks. The competition part comes from a housemate being ‘voted out’ of the house at the end of every episode.

Reality television’s “ritualized form that enables them to be successfully reproduced without being exposed to questions about their ‘content’” (p.84-85). This allows for reality shows to be similar, but still new every time it airs. Media rituals are “actions that reproduce then myth that the media are our privileged access point to social reality, but they work through the boundaries and category distinctions around which media rituals are organized, not through articulated beliefs” (p.85). 

Reality shows are premised on the experience the cast goes through being real, or being based on ‘human nature.’ “The principle that ‘media experience’ automatically trumps ‘ordinary experience,’ including any questionable ethical dimensions it may have” (p. 93). 

In the case of Big Brother, the show is premised on there being cameras everywhere and the cast is always being watched, hence the title of the show. Having “Big Brother” always watching has real-life consequences, such as surveillance that is focused on criminal activity (closed-circuit TV).

Because the cast-mates are being watched, norms of how to behave in the house emerge: (1) “to give the public what they are assumed to want” and (2) “the unobjectionable but also vague norm of ‘being yourself’” (p.95). By putting on a persona that is based on them, they are creating a myth about themselves. 

Readings for Last Week of Class

by 504student

Here are the readings for next week:

Fiske_Television Culture_1-3 13

Couldry_Teaching Us to Fake It


Bird, Hall and other readings

by 504student

Here are the readings for April 24th.

Bird CJ’s Legend

Bird cyberquilt



by 504student

The Dialogic Imagination- Four Essays–M. M. Bakhtin

So hopefully I have inserted the PDF correctly into the blog.


Arabs and Muslims in the Media: Race and Representation after 9/11 – Evelyn Alsultany

by 504student


            Since 9/11, the portrayal of Arabs/Muslims has changed drastically; either they are the sympathetic character (“good Muslim”) or the ‘bad guy’ character (“bad Muslim”).  Unfortunately the most Arab/Muslim characters on television are described in the context of either a terrorist or not a terrorist. The book is organized in three parts: logics, affects, and challenges.

Ch. 1 – Challenging the Terrorist Stereotype

TV shows use the strategy of rotating the ethnicity of the bad guy and try to avoid stereotypes of any of the ethnicities used.  Shows like 24  and Sleeper Cell, have been criticized for their use of torture on the ‘bad guys’ for being unrealistic and not appropriate for TV.

Seven categories are identified for simplified complex representations: (1) inserting patriotic Arab or Muslim Americans, (2) sympathizing with the plight or Arab and Muslim Americans after 9/11, (3) challenging the Arab/Muslim conflation with diverse Muslim identities, (4) flipping the enemy, (5) humanizing the terrorist, (6) projecting a multiculturalist US society, and (7) fictionalizing the Middle Eastern or Muslim country.

Ch. 2 – Mourning the Suspension of Arab American Civil Rights

After 9/11, the USA PATRIOT Act was enacted, which restricted the rights of many Americans and is argued that it was aimed at Arab Americans. The concept behind the PATRIOT Act was that we, as Americans, couldn’t be both free and safe, so freedoms had to comprised to ensure the safety of the nation. The idea of “respectable racism” became even more rampant under the PATRIOT Act.

Ch. 3 – Evoking Sympathy for the Muslim Woman

            The misconception, most commonly from the media, that Muslim women are oppressed because their religion dictates it. Abuse of women is, unfortunately, not restricted to Muslims, but can be found everywhere in the world. The oppression of Muslim women comes out of Fundamentalist Muslims. Many Muslim women chose to wear the hijab (headscarf) out of respect for their beliefs.

Ch. 4 – Regulating Sympathy for Muslim Man

            Some have implied that “terrorism is not political problem but a sexual one” (101). The word ‘terrorism’ is used as a catchall by the US government and the media to describe a complex political violence. Examples of how two non-Arab Americans, John Walker Lindh (white male) and Jose Padilla (Latino male), that converted to Islam and eventually become an extremist are viewed differently (in some ways more sympathetic) than Arab Muslims.


Ch. 5- Selling Muslim American Identity

            The author looks at various ad campaigns from a nonprofit organization, a civil rights group, and a branch of the UG government that represented Arab Muslims as Americans. “The discourse that [is] mobilized to include Muslims within American cultural citizenship” (142). The ads place those portrayed as American first and Muslim second.


            During the 2008 Presidential elections, many “right wing activists” claimed that Barack Obama was Muslims, in a negative way. In recent years, three TV shows have attempted to incorporate “good Muslim” or Arab characters: Aliens in America, Community, and Little Mosque on the Prairie. All three shows have portrayed the Arab/Muslim characters in a new and positive way, which is lacking from the majority of television. 

Enlightened Racism Notes

by 504student

Sam Miller


Enlightened Racism

by Jhally & Lewis


The history of popular culture often follows a similar pattern: elaborate praise becomes an increasingly difficult burden, and critic’s euphoria is almost invariably followed by cynical backlash. (p.2)


The Good


The popularity and positive critique of The Cosby Show according to the book was based on the audience’s perception of certain issues: race relations, universal family values, airbrushed positivity, and middle class family with no financial issues. These things were not as present in predominantly African American shows in the 1970’s.


The Bad


While Cosby presented the positive message of African Americans becoming successful, the reality was that the show concealed social experiences persistent in African American culture: predominant working class, decrease in working class roles, and reification of the American Dream mythos.


Why Ugly?


What did the Cosby Show mean for audiences? It presented a universal family with everyday situations. While not wrong in presenting general situations, the program did not confront many social controversies prevalent at the time. This has the potential to present the audience with a utopian sense of egalitarianism and social justice.


Consider the following questions:


Why would consumer constraints play a role in the presentation of the show?


Why are there dangers in dismissing the show as a sitcom?


What is the danger of the contained threat?


What is the danger in presenting more professionals than working class people and what does it say about American television habits?


How does the presentation of the Huxtables influence class consciousness and the struggle of minorities to succeed?


Many White participants felt that the Huxtables were closely identifiable to themselves even though they were of a different race? (Otherness)


What are upper middle class family portrayals preferred on television over working class families?


Why are the racial and economic double binds so dangerous in the Cosby show?

Why is there such a difference in reception between the Cosby Show and other African American shows like the Jeffersons and Good Times?


Why did shows that presented class issues(Roseanne & 227) not receive the acclaim that the Cosby Show receive? (Culture Industry)


What is the American Dream and is it still a viable goal?


What does the show say about social mobility for minorities?


Lynne Cheney Exercise

On Linguistic Aspects of Translation – Roman Jakobson

by 504student

The author starts off with an example of knowing through context what cheese is and knowing what it is through having tried it (and being told what it is called). As far back as remembered, words are assigned to certain objects in order to communicate what is being talked about, so naturally there are people that assign meaning to the object. There are three ways to interpret a verbal sign: (1) Intralingual translation or rewording is an interpretation of verbal signs by means of other signs of the same language, (2) Interlingual translation or translation proper is an interpretation of verbal signs by means of some other language, and (3) Intersemiotic translation or transmutation is an interpretation of verbal signs by means of signs of nonverbal sign systems.


Translators have a difficult task because they have to recode a message so the reader of the translated language can understand, all while not taking away from the author’s intended message. Basic signs are easily translated, but more complex meanings, usually culturally ingrained, are harder to translate perfectly. For example, some languages feminize or masculinize certain words, such as Russian word for knife is masculine and fork is feminine, while others do not place that type of meaning on words.  Other meanings, mostly concepts, are culturally ingrained, such as death. In German death is depicted as a man, while in Russia death is depicted as a woman. So the translator would have to compensate for the cultural difference. 

Critical Logic and Universal Rhetoric

by 504student

Critical Logic

As we conclude our reading of Pierce through Lizska we examine Pierce’s notion of Critical Logic. If you recall Pierce’s classification of theoretical sciences in the first half you will notice that Critical Logic is in the midst of grammar and universal rhetoric. In the scheme of Pierce’s triads, critical logic is nestled in the middle between the more ephemeral and abstracts of philosophy and mathematics and the tangible and concrete of the physical and psychical sciences.  I view this as middle ground because Critical Logic is at one point trying to reach a final truth and accuracy through validity, but is also trying to concretize those propositions into something practical. In the Piercian (a Pierce-ness if you will) tradition this Critical Logic reaches validity in three ways. The first test for validity is known as deduction.  This is the traditional logic of philosophy in which an iconic statement is made valid by repeatedly observing relations in similar objects.  Simply put, it is applying a specific rule to a particular case to reach determine validity.

Example: Dr. Conway is a professor

All professors are mortals.

Therefore, all professors are mortals.

The second test for validity is through induction. This is the inverse of deduction in that instead of looking for the specifics of a particular, induction looks at specifics to determine generalities of validity. Example: If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then in all probability it is a duck. In other words, the specifics of duck-ness could qualify this object as a duck.

The final test of validity in Pierce’s Critical Logic comes by way of abduction. This system validates or dismisses the hypotheses of deduction and induction by looking at the end results of the hypothesis. If the actual results do not match the expected results,  a new hypothesis must be created. This is the result of abduction.  Results from a failed hypothesis are examined and a hypothesis is created by the accommodation of the results. In other words, a plausible explanation for the results must be verified.

Universal Rhetoric

                As mentioned previously, Universal Rhetoric is one step below Critical Logic in Pierce’s structure of theoretical sciences. The emphasis of Universal Rhetoric is placed on the relationship between the sign and the interpretants. This again is divided into three categories; immediate, dynamic, and final interpretant. Immediate interpretants are those which interpret the initial sign itself. This is a reflection of sign upon the interpretant as individual.  The dynamic is the relation of the sign upon a sign-interpreting agency. In other words, the process that signs are collectively designated with an agreed-upon meaning in a group. The final or ultimate interpretant deals with the effect of a sign upon other signs or their agents.

All three of these categories play a role in how communication and rhetoric perform in a society or more plainly, how we transfer information to one another. Communication attempts to understand how this information is passed from one object to another. As sign using beings, it would important to know how to use signs to create meaning and convey it to others. Rhetoric, on the other hand, is considered an art of persuasion; therefore, in order to convey persuasive argument, one should master these categories to transfer meanings of persuasion upon the audience to move them to action. These categories are concerned with how the signs are structured within a society. Therefore, if a sign using being implements signs that are collectively understood by a community or universally understood by all then the meaning of the message has greater effect. The message may not effect in totality, but it will reach a majority. Universal Rhetoric attempts to reach a singular meaning, but this possibility will never  so long as there is always a slippage in meaning no matter how technical a sign tries to be.

Notes on Pierce and Triads

by 504student

Notes on Pierce and Triads

As noted in previous classes and in Dr. Conway’s distillation of firstness, secondness, and thirdness, we are likely to focus on Pierce’s use of the triad.  I can remember three things, index, icon, and symbol etc. Yet, Pierce’s grounding of semiotics in “that which is observed” seems a more interesting way into understanding Pierce’s later, more opaque, explanations of how language creates meaning.  For Pierce, everything communicated must eventually lead back to an object.  The object becomes symbolic through his described processes of relational building (I believe Liska coins “modes of production”) from index to icon, from icon to symbol provides a rather concise explanation of the correlative nature of Pierce’s triads at work.

As an aside, the casting of semiotics alongside science still seems to be a concerted effort to legitimate the study of language in all its iterations (history, literature, communication etc.). There is a distinct advantage to systemizing the “ologies.” Doing so allows us to enter through another door in the vast array of language building and language meaning.  The real fortune, I believe, is not Pierce’s use of triads whether you are talking about the correlational meaning of firstness to thirdness, nor is it the more identifiable index, icon, and symbol; rather it is the casting of all of these triads into “that which is observed.”  Not only does Pierce’s first move account for a study of semiotics as it relates to the sciences of ethnography and anthropology, but it also allows us to dissect the processes of translation as culture-building.  Though this is not immediately apparent (to me this is a slippery concept), the notion of simultaneity and Messianic time (which for my research purposes are not entirely mutually explicit) along with Pierce’s notion of observation and the correlation of his processes of firstness, secondness and thirdness, makes this wild assertion more apparent for me.  Perhaps this becomes clearer if we consider some of Liska’s explanation of the ten classes of signs.

Prior to examining Pierce’s classes of signs, Liska examines Pierce’s notion of breadth and depth.  Liska explains this concept using an example of arsenic.  He says that Arsenic may have breadth as because it is identifiable as a chemical but its meaning is only fully realized when we consider its depth as a chemical that can kill (Liska, 29). This notion of breadth and depth becomes pivotal when positioned against Pierce’s idea of the Dominance Rule, the idea that one subset of trichotomy may take precedence over another (Liska, 46).  So, when Liska gets to explaining the Rhematic Symbolic Legisign (“any conventional sign which correlates with its object primarily through some conventional, habitual, or lawlike means, and acts primarily in conveying a general sense or depth about the object it represents” [Liska, 50]), and its relation to the Dicentic Indexical Sinsign (“indices which not only indicate their object but also are able to represent some sense or depth about the object they refer to” [Liska, 50]), we are able to understand that language is multidimensional.  It has breadth, depth, and object, and a meaning that it is positioned against that is similar to the way in which translation operates.  This triad of Dominance Rule, RSL, and DIS allows us to examine the complex symbolic language prevalent in culture, politics, and metaphor.

            I understand that this “summary” is further from Dr. Conway’s more holistic distillation of what Pierce and Liska are examining.  I am attempting, and yes, stumbling to find meaning beyond a first reading approach.  My apologies to my classmates if you found this summary less useful than previous iterations.

Firstness, Secondness, and Thirdness in Peirce

by undcomm103

Notes on Peirce:

Peirce’s definition of a sign is usefully broad because it extends beyond words: “something which stands to somebody for something on some respect or capacity. It addresses somebody, that is, creates in the mind of that person an equivalent sign, or perhaps a more developed sign.” [note 1] More simply, a sign is something that evokes something for someone. A sign points to an object and, at the same time, it brings to the interpreter’s mind another sign (called the “interpretant”) that translates and mediates the original sign. This is the structure of semiosis, or the making of meaning, of which sign, object, and interpretant are three necessary parts. Without one of the parts, semiosis does not take place—the triad is not reducible to pairs of dyads.

This triadic structure recurs throughout Peirce’s analysis. He loves typologies, especially those that describe levels of mediation. The typology he returns to most is that of firstness, secondness, and thirdness, which describe degrees of mediation and reflexivity. Firstness is a condition of unmediated, unreflexive access. Firsts are experience without reaction, cause without effect. Secondness is a condition of mediated but not yet reflexive access. Seconds are experience and the reaction it evokes, cause and the effect it provokes, but not yet a reflection on the reaction or effect. Thirdness is a condition of mediated, reflexive access. Thirds are experience, reaction, and the reflection upon that reaction. They are cause, effect, and the extension of that effect to the form of habit or convention or law.

Peirce’s triads follow this structure, and they are nested. Consider the structure of semiosis: the sign is a first, the object it evokes is a second, and the interpretant is a third. Where signs are concerned, they are characterized by their presentative condition (the ground, or the quality that makes them a sign), a condition of firstness; by their representative condition (the relation in which they stand to their object), a condition of secondness; and finally by their interpretative power (their ability to direct attention to an object in such a way as to evoke an interpretant), a condition of thirdness.

Each of these conditions is also follows a triadic structure. Peirce identifies three types of signs as a function of their presentative condition: qualisigns, or qualities that act as signs (the color red), sinsigns, or actual instantiations of signs (a light that turns red), and legisigns, or signs that have a meaning deriving from convention, habit, or law (a red traffic light that signals to drivers to stop). [note 2] Qualisigns are firsts, sinsigns are seconds, and legisigns are thirds.

He also identifies three types of signs as a function of their representative condition: icons, or signs that resemble their object (an image of fire), indices, or signs that are contiguous with, are caused by, or somehow point to their objects (smoke coming from a fire), and symbols, or signs whose meanings are a function of convention, habit, or law (fire as knowledge in the story of Prometheus). Here again, icons are firsts, indices are seconds, and symbols are thirds.

The same is true of signs as a function of their interpretive condition: rhemes identify a sign but do not reveal whether it exists or can be judged true or false (“a dog”); dicents are propositions that can be judged true or false (“a dog is an animal”); and arguments are signs whose interpretation relates to convention, habit, or law (“a dog is a man’s best friend”). Rhemes are firsts, dicents are seconds, and arguments are thirds.

One implication of these typologies is that we can identify ten types of signs ranging from the barely elaborated (rhematic iconic qualisigns such as “a nebulous patch of color, seeing a blotch of red in an afterimage, hearing the wind blow through an old house, the musty smell while walking in a forest, the aftertaste from a deliciously exotic meal” [note 3]) to the complex (argumentative symbolic legisigns, where the “paradigm case is that of an inference of an argument, which shows the connection between one set of propositions [the premises] and another [the conclusion]” [note 4]).

Why only ten types, rather than twenty-seven, as three sets of triads would suggest? Peirce argues the interpretive condition of a sign cannot be of a higher order than its representative condition, which in turn cannot be of a higher order than its presentative condition. That is, a qualisign (a first) cannot be a dicent (a second) or an argument (a third), nor can it be an index (a second) or a symbol (a third). As a result, the only type of qualisign conceivable is a rhematic iconic qualisign, but many types of legisigns are conceivable. [note 5]

[1] Charles Peirce, The Philosphy of Peirce: Selected Writings, ed. Justus Buchler. London: Routledge and Kegan, 1940, p. 99.

[2] Examples adapted from James Jakób Liszka, A General Introduction to the Semeiotic of Charles Sanders Peirce. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994, p. 35–36.

[3] Liszka, p. 48.

[4] Liszka, p. 52.

[5] Although these signs are conceivable, they are not in fact possible. By definition, any instantiation of a sign is a sinsign. Therefore, qualisigns and legisigns cannot be instantiated as such.