Research - Semiotics part 2 / by Ally McGinn

When last posting i was exploring Barthes and Semiotics. This is a subject i'm continuing to find fascinating, and have made copious notes on.

For the sake of some self-imposed limitations i'm going to keep this as a short text with some of the most interesting things i have found.


Barthes makes an important distinction when considering the word ‘natural’ (which could be swapped for ‘normal’) that it is a reflection of those making the rules as opposed to a true reflection of a quantitative average.

To Barthes the fact that we do certain things (including, but not limited to: eating, sleeping, reproduction, language, etc) is natural, but the way we do them, and the ways we are taught (either consciously or subconsciously) to do them is a form of semiotics. In that, they have meaning to our society, and with the correct signs and information those meanings can be deciphered BUT those nuances differ from place to place.

Could it then be said that the natural parts of human nature are those that are universal?  Or is it closer to the truth to say that the natural parts are the activities, and the study of meaning is something slightly different?


Barthes and Saussure agree that the words we use (as in the sounds made when we say them or the shapes formed when we write them) are relatively arbitrary. Their only meaning comes from a collaborative agreement, made long before most of us were born.

Changing the word or sound doesn't change the meaning, or the thing itself.

Interestingly a case in response to this would seem to be art itself. The artist can claim an object as ‘Art’ and change what it is, or at least our understanding of it. The object doesn't change through the nomination, our perception of it does. (But that shift in perception is reliant on an element of trust from the viewer for the artist, and a belief in historical canon and the value of Art. - as it always is, it is not as simple as changing the name, the perspective shift requires a far more complex negotiation than that)

If the words we use are largely arbitrary then they become once more a tool in our understanding and experience of our world. We use the structure of language to apply structure to a world that we are only beginning to understand.

These structures can be seen in every element of our lives as humans. Even time.

The addition of leap seconds are an interesting example. Days are getting minutely longer all the time, but the increase is subject to various physical factors and is hard to predict, so a consensus is reached by academic leaders in the field and we occasionally have an extra second added to our calendars - often causing chaos in our computer systems.

The structure we have applied to time on Earth is utterly ignored by the physical reality of the planet.


There can be no definitive meaning attached to an object or sign, because those meanings are changeable.


Barthes wrote and theorised about far more than the subject of semiotics. In ‘The Death of the Author’ a text exploring ideas around originality (among a few others) Barthes posits that originality is a clouded subject because of the interrelation between the internal and the external (to use Derrida’s dual explanation - which certainly fits here) meaning, that it is difficult to create something when there is so much already out there. We are not isolated beings living with no contextual, cultural, social or other intellectual input. We are sponges, from the moment we begin to process information, we store that information.

The other important point in this text is that meaning doesn't so much originate in the author but in the audience. Again, similar in ways to Derrida's theories.

Barthes stresses that meaning is generated in a form that he talks about as intertextuality.  When you read or watch something the meaning taken from it are to do with things we perceives to exist between the thing you are experiencing and other things you have experienced in the past.


This is a shorter post than i am used to writing, but i believe it shows a few examples of the areas of interest that i’ve found while reading Barthes writings, and writings about him.The subject of semiotics is far deeper than i have even began to cover here, and a primarily linguistic exploration, however the importance of semiotics in visual culture (of which art is firmly entrenched) cannot be denied.
Semiotics might have been conceived in a literary form but it has impact in any and all areas we want it to, it is after all the study of meaning and humans are very good at applying meaning to anything.

Semiotics could be expanded to be - the study of anything that has a ‘subject’, because once we have labelled that ‘subject’ it has a form of a sign. The label itself is a sign.

Coming soon - Writing these short summaries is encouraging more research on the idea of art as an organising structure and its function in the role of human existence. Research, at least in the very near future, will move towards this arena.


Barthes, R. (1977) Image, Music, Text. St Ives: Fontana Press.

Barthes, R. ‘Death of the Author’, in Leitch, V.B. et al. (ed.) The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism: (2010) USA: Norton, pp. 1322-1326.

Barthes, Roland (1957) Mythologies.

Barthes, Roland ([1964] 1967). Elements of Semiology (trans. Annette Lavers & Colin Smith). London: Jonathan Cape.

Culler, J (2001) Barthes: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Derrida, J. (1978) The truth in painting. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.