Communication 504: Semiotics and Visual Communication
Spring 2013

Wednesday, 3:00–5:50pm
319 O’Kelly

Prof. Kyle Conway
Office: 221D Merrifield
Office hours: Tuesday and Thursday, 9:30–10:45am and by appointment
Phone: 777-4344
Email: kyle dot conway at und dot edu

Course description:

Semiotics is the study of signs and sign-systems. To study semiotics is to ask how meaning works. How is meaning produced? How does it circulate? And—the question that structures much of this class—what happens when people disagree about what something means?

Because this course is designed for students with no prior background in semiotics, we will begin with an overview of the foundational documents of the French, American, and Russian semiotic schools. After that, we will investigate a specific phenomenon, that of contested meaning. We will look at signs’ mutability and immutability under the influence of speakers’ active rhetorical interventions. Thus, specific questions we will ask include:

What constitutes a sign?
What of meaning is stable, and what is contingent?
What is the analytical value of “semiotic excess”?
How do people mobilize semiotic excess to try to fix or contest what a sign means?

Required materials:


Evelyn Alsultany, Arabs and Muslims in the Media: Race and Representation after 9/11 (ISBN: 9780814707326)
Roland Barthes, Image, Music, Text (ISBN: 9780374521363)
Jacques Derrida, Positions (ISBN: 9780226143316)
James Jakób Liszka, A General Introduction to the Semiotic of Charles Sanders Peirce (ISBN: 9780253330475)
Sut Jhally and Justin Lewis, Enlightened Racism: The Cosby Show, Audiences, and the Myth of the American Dream (ISBN: 9780813314198)
Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, trans. Wade Baskin (ISBN: 9780070165243) (available as PDF here)
V.N. Vološinov, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language (ISBN: 9780674550988)
Raymond Williams, Keywords (ISBN: 9780195204698)

Articles available electronically

Linked to below

Recommended material:

Daniel Chandler, Semiotics for Beginners (HTML)


Participation 15%
Class facilitation 15%
Tropological analysis 20%
Paper 50%

Grading scale:

A: 90–100% B: 80–89% C: 70–79% D: 60–69% F: 0–59%.

Assignment descriptions:

Class facilitation: Each week, a different person will be responsible for facilitating class. Facilitators have two main responsibilities: first, to post a summary of the readings to the class blog, and second, to come with three or four discussion questions.

Summaries should be 250–400 words long. At a minimum, they should identify questions that authors ask, answers they provide, and evidence they use.

Discussion questions should use the readings as a starting point, and they should focus on application, extension, and interpretation. They should require people to go beyond the text to find answers. (In other words, because everyone will have read the material and will have access to a summary to the website, questions should not focus on mere comprehension.)

Tropological analysis: You will choose a sign (in any medium—language, image, sound, etc.) and describe the evolution of its meanings. Your description should be concrete and address the socio-historical conditions of this evolution. The paper should be ten pages long and focused enough (in temporal scope) to allow you to provide a thick description of the various influences on the sign’s meaning. In other words, privilege exhaustiveness over length of period covered. This analysis will be due on March 6.

Paper: You will produce a seminar paper about fifteen pages long. It can build on your tropological analysis, or it can be about a different topic related to the course. It is due on May 6 at 3:15pm.


Academic honesty: All policies described in UND’s Code of Student Life (available at apply in this class. Also, please note that you may not turn in work that has been or will be turned in for credit elsewhere unless you make an explicit, justifiable request by week 10 of the semester.

Attendance: Attendance is mandatory. You get one free absence. After that there will a penalty.

Email and grades: FERPA (the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) prevents me from discussing grades over email. However, I am more than happy to meet with you during my office hours if you would like to discuss your grade.

Cell phones: As a courtesy to me and to your classmates, please turn cell phones off during class.

Recording devices: Please do not record class sessions (either audio or video) without my explicit permission.

Reading schedule:

N.B.: Please read all translator’s notes, introductions, etc.

Week 1, Jan. 9: What is semiotics?

Week 2, Jan. 16: Tropological analysis
Montgomery, “Semantic Asymmetry and the ‘War on Terror’” (PDF)
Conway, “Quebec and the Historical Meaning of ‘Distinct Society’” (PDF)
Williams, Keywords (selections)

The French

Week 3, Jan. 23: French structuralism: building it up
Saussure, Course in General Linguistics (introduction, parts 1–2)

Week 4, Jan. 30: French structuralism: breaking it down
Saussure, Course in General Linguistics (parts 3–5)

Week 5, Feb. 6: Mythologies
Barthes, “Myth Today” (PDF)
Barthes, Image, Music, Text (“The Death of the Author,” “From Work to Text,” “The Photographic Message,” “The Rhetoric of the Image”)

Week 6, Feb. 13: Deconstruction
Derrida, Positions (all)

The Americans

Week 7, Feb. 20: Syntax, Semantics, Pragmatics
Morris, Foundations of the Theory of Signs (PDF)
Ricoeur, “The Problem of Double Meaning as Hermeneutic Problem and as Semantic Problem” (PDF)

Week 8, Feb. 27: Peirce: Foundations and semiotic grammar
Liszka, A General Introduction (introduction, chaps. 1 & 2)
Peirce, “Logic as Semiotic: The Theory of Signs” (PDF)

Week 9, Mar. 6: Peirce: Logic and rhetoric – TROPOLOGICAL ANALYSIS DUE
Liszka, A General Introduction (chaps. 3 & 4)

The Russians

Week 10, Mar. 20: Dialogism
Vološinov, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language (all)

Week 11, Mar. 27: Semiosphere, translation, and alterity
Lotman, “On the Semiosphere” (PDF)
Jakobson, “On Linguistic Aspects of Translation” (PDF)
Todorov, “Philosophical Anthropology” (PDF)

Contested signs

Week 12, Apr. 3: Race and class in US television
Jhally and Lewis, Enlightened Racism (all)

Week 13, Apr. 10: Religion in post-9/11 television
Alsultany, Arabs and Muslims in the Media (all)

Week 14, Apr. 17: Student-led

Week 15, Apr. 24: Student-led

Week 16, May 1: Student-led