Take home exam Semiological, semiotic or structural approaches

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1- Semiological, semiotic or structural approaches to systems of signification are rooted in linguistic theory. Explain how the analysis of language can help us deconstruct meaning as it inscribes itself in different types of narratives whether verbal or non-verbal.

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All human beings create action sequences. They go to school; they drive a car; they read books; they go to movies, sing, play sports and so on. These action sequences have symbolic value, recognized as forms of doing. Sequences of action are made up of singular acts but as they are deemed continuous, they form a spectrum or range.

Although there are differences in approaches to signs, a sign is denotative and specific. It points to something, as smoke may indicate a fire. A reddened face may indicate that the owner is embarrassed or weary from body exertion. The interpretation is usually framed in context.

Signification is indistinguishably attached to human nature. Our expressions of fear, misery, anger, joy, and other feelings are without thought, the same in connotation and denotation. Emotionally, nonverbal communication binds humankind together.

From the facial expressions, gestures and posture to the appearance, body, shape, clothing, and behavior, nonverbal communication can send scores of messages all at once.  The potential of human communication is realized only when body messages and spoken messages work together synchronously and harmoniously. Dysfunction and confusion result when the spoken word is contradicted by body messages.

Signification also tells us that sequences of acts are usually planned in inner conversations with the self. When performed often, they become routine, requiring little pre-thinking.  But of course, human action may operate below the perceptual or sensory threshold.

2- Language is a system of distinct signs which correspond to distinct ideas (Saussure 1966:16). Please explain the nature of signs according to Saussure’s theory of language

Most studies of language take a diachronic approach that emphasised, for instance, a “cause/effect” or sequential view of meaning and communication. Saussure used a synchronic method of study that looked at simultaneous relationships. One result of the synchronic method was Saussure’s insistence on the double nature of language and linguistic elements.

Saussure insisted on the systematic nature of language; “Language is a structure, a functioning whole in which the different parts are determined by one another.” The combined elements of parole and langue form language. Language states Saussure, manifests itself as speech (parole), the actual performance of speakers when they speak or write, also language (langue), which represents the knowledge or competence that all speakers possess of their language.

Speech says Saussure, “has both an individual and social side … always implies both establish system and evolution.” All changes in language occur in parole, in the actual speech act. But only some of these changes become institutionalised in langue. Saussure states that langue, should not be confused with human speech, it is a system or structure of speech codes. He argued that linguistic elements are relational, that it is viewpoint that creates the object of linguistic study. Because so much depends on viewpoint, the nature of the linguistic sign is necessarily arbitrary.

Saussure followed that if we are able to recognise things through mental representations, then the brain also has to recognise words we hear via mental representations, in conjunction with distinguishing what the words mean via representations. From this, Saussure goes on to make the sign the unity of sound-image and concept. Thus like Aristotle he seems to think that there are mental facts (concepts). He does not believe however of the sound as a sign of those concepts, rather that the sound that travels due to the physical disturbance in the air (is associated with a mental representation of the sound) the sound-image.

Another distinct difference between philosophers is when Saussure also states that, “There are no pre-existing ideas, and nothing is distinct before the appearance of language.” This varies from Aristotle’s theory, who considers that individuals have pre-linguistic thoughts that are then coded into language.

3- Baudillard states: “… the entire system is founded on the concept of functionality. Colors, forms, materials, design, space – all are functional. Every object claims to be “functional”… the term evokes all the virtues of modernity, yet it is perfectly ambiguous. With its reference to function it suggests that the object fulfils itself in the relationship to the real world and human needs. But as our analysis has shown, “functional” in no way qualifies what is adapted to a goal, merely what is adapted to an order or system: functionality is the ability to become integrated into an overall scheme” (Baudillard 1996:63). Explain in your own words how Baudillard approaches the analysis of objects as gaining their “functionality” within a “universal system of signs.”

Signs. They’re everywhere. Though this statement is in no way enlightening, it is nonetheless very true. Within our culture, we are so completely surrounded by signs of all types that they become nearly invisible unless they are looked for. Though this likely seems true to you upon some reflection, it is just as likely that you have only considered “signs” in the most basic literal sense, that is, signs such as those that offer directions to the nearest parking lot or those denoting street names. However, semiologists consider signs in a much more broad manner. To semiologists, signs include both verbal and non-verbal communications, as well as objects or phenomenon taken as signs by their viewer. In fact, road signs and their ilk make up only a very small part of what semiologists study. Other signs, non-verbal communications for instance, tend to make for more interesting subjects of study as they are much more dynamic in both their use and perception.

Indeed, every person lives in a world of social encounters, involving him either in face-to-face or mediated contact with other participants. Functionality is not an exemption from the netting realm of meaning-making from the universal system of signs. Creating meaning in conversation is a mutual responsibility. Both sender and receiver are capable of doing so, and should exercise equal responsibility in such “overall scheme” as Baudillard puts it.

4- Basing yourself on first levi-strauss’s and then Barthes’s analyses, describe how myths function as types of narratives that carry a message.

In Levi-strauss’s and Barthes’s analyses, we have seen the importance of myth in giving meaning and understanding to life. In the Beginnings of the Western Mind we read about the importance of myth in the consciousness of the oral societies of pre-classical Greece; in Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs we read about the myth of the “West” in the U.S. and its influence on the thought of many Americans; In Things Fall Apart we see the power if myth and the consequences of the break down of those myths and stories upon which a culture is structured on. I wish to discuss the importance of telling myths and stories in influencing the quality of our culture. Often, Americans look back on older cultures and try to understand them in terms of their myths and stories but, I fear, we do not question our own myths and stories.

Certainly, Levi-strauss and Barthes are correct in saying that a myth is a story with a meaning, but to understand the meaning you cannot take everything the author says literally. If you do you see some miracles and things that sound completely out of the ordinary and fiction. But if you try to see past the seemingly fiction accounts you can see the real meaning to the story.

Throughout the history of human civilization, myths have been an integral part of human society. Myths have no cultural boundaries as they can be found in all cultural societies. The word myth can be referred to the classical Greek and Roman mythology or a contemporary myth. Yet regardless of the type of myth, they are stories used to give meaning to a phenomenon or symbolic manner to the natural cycles that surround humankind. Myths, as Levi-strauss and Barthes put it, are used to explain and understand our existence in our world whether it is something that we can tangibly see or not. Being such an influential message carrier, the saga of a myth is past down from one generation to the next. The reason myths are studied in today’s culture are because the stories are about the human condition, not about time or place. It is this versatility of myths that makes them such an integral part of a people’s culture that relies heavily on language in passing on culture-bound messages across generations.


Littlejohn, Stephen W. (2001). “Theories of Signs and Language.” Theories of Human Communication. Wadsworth Publishing.

Osgood, Charles E., W. H. May and M. S. Miron. (1975). Cross-Cultural Universals of Affective Meaning. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

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