Posts Tagged ‘Semiotics’

Or, La Trahison des Images. Or, Ceci N’est pas une pipe. Or, This is Not a Pipe. Painted by the surrealist René Magritte in 1928-1929. Here, and elsewhere, he mythologizes everydayness by taking quotidian objects, transplanting them in another world, another time, until they lose their mundane, everyday, quotidian qualities, until they have lost their everyday thingness. Here, Magritte transplants the pipe into the world of language. This painting, The Treachery of Images, is not a pipe, which is the point, it is a painting. (And it’s located at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.) This painting is a sign, a representamen, a signifier. It’s not a joke. Ceci n’est pas la plaisanterie. It’s semiotics. And yet people scoffed at him. And some people were truly outraged.

The famous pipe. How people reproached me for it! And yet, could you stuff my pipe? No, it’s just a representation, is it not? So if I had written on my picture “This is a pipe,” I’d have been lying!

Semiotics: The study of signs and symbols and their use or interpretation.

Ferdinand de Saussure, the grandfather of the linguistic sign. His students posthumously published his lecture notes in 1916 on linguistics: Cours de linguistique générale. He is the first to define the linguistic sign as a two-sided entity, a dyad. One side of the sign is called the signifier, which is the material aspect of the sign, the word, the grapheme, the phoneme. And the obverse side refers to the signified, or the mental concept.

The word “banana” in English is made up of the signifiers /b/ /a/ /n/ /a/ /n/ /a/, but what is engendered for the hearer is not the “real” banana, the banana committing suicide, but a mental concept of “banananess”: yellow, fruit, sweet, mushy, phallic, peel, slipping, yummy, nom nom nom.

The “real” banana is the banana in the sentence, the one being described, not a general banana. In this instance, the “real” banana is this poor fella dangling from the shoelace.

Saussure discovered that the relationship between signifier and signified is completely arbitrary. The mental concept of the banana need not necessarily be engendered by the signifier which consists of the sound /b/ /a/ /n/ /a/ /n/ /a/. For instance, in French, when people think of banananess they use the signifier “banane” and in Greek “μπανάνα.”

In other words, there is no natural reason why the signifier “banana” should engender the signified. The relationship is purely conventional, it exists because of conventional rules, conventional agreements. This system only functions because signs signify by virtue of their difference from other signs.

La Différance. Jacques Derrida.

Words and signs can never fully articulate what they mean; they can only be defined through appeal to other words, from which, they differ. Thus, meaning is perpetually deferred, or postponed through an endless chain of signifiers. Saussure didn’t push this idea far enough. To it’s obvious conclusion.

Inside the Cours, Derrida found that Saussure, like most philosophers, championed speaking over writing, that writing was a “secondary” form of signification. Saussure even says, “Language and writing are two distinct systems of signs; the second exists for the sole purpose of representing the first.”

Derrida accuses Saussure of privileging the spoken signifier over the written signifier, that the former is somehow closer to the signified. This is logocentrism. The spoken sign is pure, where the written sign is meddlesome, in the middle, merely a bridge from thought to communication, which it is, but they both are! Derrida doesn’t understand why people fight mediation. It is what it is.

Both speech and writing are systems of difference.


Both words are pronounced the same exact way (especially in French), but the distinction between them can only been seen in writing.

Vive La Différance!

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First, let me apologize for an embarrassingly long sabbatical from my blog, and then, let me explain, justify, rationalize my absence.

There are two distinct reasons I haven’t been writing.

1. I moved. Across the country. Into a geodesic dome. Where it has already snowed. It’s as if I’m living in a reversed snow globe.

2. My literary magazine, Omnia Vanitas Review, was finally launched.

Both of these things are chain-linked in my mind, as if they were organically related, but, as I was moving away from New York, and my partner wasn’t, we needed to wrap everything up before I left. This all culminated in a grand reading, a party, celebrating a different kind of writing. I used to say the underside of writing, the belly of writing, but this isn’t about depth, it’s about perception. It’s more about the expression without writing transcribed into pure writing. Language, that word, its flowery permutations, its acrobatic semiotics, changes from person to person. Wittgenstein talks about the impossibility of emptying the contents of your mind into someone else’s, the inability to create an exact duplicate of the analogons, the pictures inside your brain, for someone else to see, devour. Language, the relation of signifiers to signified, cannot be an exact science.

Signifier: The word, the sign, the representation, that describes the thing.

Signified: The thing itself.

Charles Sanders Peirce (the father of pragmatism):

A sign is something which stands to somebody for something in 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. The sign which it creates I call the interpretant of the first sign. The sign stands for something, its object.

So, an apple would be the thing, but the word “apple” would be the signifier. This issue is famously discussed in Magritte’s painting.


I could go on and on about the pipe-ness of a pipe, and how when someone says the word “pipe” what appears in everyone’s head is specific and generic and different, but, roughly, we all come up with something that kind of looks like that, unless, of course, you’re talking about a different pipe.


Remind me to someday print this out and do something with it. It’s one of the only images I have found that combines my love for semiotics with my brother’s love of video games, a rare and precious intersection.

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