Research - A Note on Post-structuralism by Ally McGinn

Post-structuralism is a term I've come across in the last few years of research, yet it is one that's eluded my attempts to retain it. In an attempt to assimilate this knowledge I wanted to write a short post about this term.

Associated, but not inextricably linked, to postmodernism, post-structuralism is hard to define, another similarity to postmodernism.

At heart, post-structuralism is the focus shift from creator to audience and external meaning.

It's basic tenets are;

  • That the notion of the individual is, at heart, false. The reader is an amalgamation of external sources and influences that form an interpretation of ‘reality’ based on their perspective.

  • That the author, or artist's, the intention is irrelevant in comparison to the interpretation of the reader, the viewer.

  • And therefore, due to the perspective reliant nature of interpretation. The use of a variety of sources is vital to the ‘truth’ of a subject

Many of the theorists I have been researching are post-structuralists, including Derrida, Barthes and Foucault. I can now say I am working from a post-structuralist ideology.

This brief note covers a wider range of subjects and theorists, and should, in fact, be on my mind maps.

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.

Research - Semiotics, Part 1 by Ally McGinn

On semiotics

The first real, intense, interest I have had since starting the MA (and here I distinguish a desire to research to improve my practice from an interest in a subject) has been semiotics.

It comes as a result of a discussion board created by our tutor after a lecture by Robin Marriner on the nature of visual communication and the important relationship with semiotics and context.

The discussion board was placed for us to articulate semiotics in relation to our own practices.

I've had an interest in semiotics since researching for my dissertation - which focussed on the important elements in understanding art, which contains an element of semiotics.

While semiotics is rooted in language when we use it in art it becomes something more. By nature it deals with both the entomology and ontology of a subject.

The sign is made up of two distinct elements, the signifier and signified, which relate to the nature of something and the meaning we attribute to it.

For example: the word apple, and the meaning we take from it (it's fruitness, religion, the computer company, apple pie, New York)

The look of an apple, the sound of its crunch, its feel and it's taste, which might be used more in art, are signifiers, they are the things that tell us it's an apple. So can we explain it as - Signifier (physical reality) and, signified (the language we use around it).

Semiotics is used constantly in our world. Arguably it is what language is. Saussure described language as part of semiotics, while Barthes positioned the opposite.

Given my current knowledge, I am unable to disagree with Saussure. Language is the form semiotics take. This can be shown in the fact that we could take any part of human activity and our explorations and explanations of it would be a form of semiotics.

The only form of activity that has no relation to semiotics would arguably be found in philosophy or metaphysics, a concept without a signifier.  Anything that has a subject is experienced semiotically.

This feels like the perfect moment to stop for now and read more about Barthes argument that semiotics is a part of language.

The next post will explore semiotics a little further but will remain short, following that I will explore some of the signs in my practice.


Semiotics in my practice

In relation to my own practice semiotics is extremely important. One of the concerns i often focus on is - the understanding and interpretation of what art is - which requires a certain reading of art in the first instance.

In order to subvert or distort an idea, we must first understand the idea. Given that art is primarily a visual subject, and a very subjective one, many of the qualifiers are a form of sign - eg: an object's location in an art gallery, it's medium, function and presentation.

Understanding the implications of these signs has been something I have been interested in to form the foundation for experiments in studio practice.

In particular, Derrida’s theories about the frame (‘The Parergon’) and the implications when we understand the internal/external web that surrounds any artwork.

Semiotics is apparent in multiple places in my studio, from the subverted signs that inform something as art, to the overt signs on canvas placed on a worktop to collect the process of making (which often include words, arrows, numbers and diagrams) these signs and their signifiers are an important element of my practice.

I find semiotics to be a fascinating subject with a fractal nature, the more you look the more you will see.

I particularly enjoy the moment when we first perceive a sign, when we realise something we took as tacit is actually implicit or visa versa.


Barthes, Roland (1973) Mythologies. UK: Hill and Wang.

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

Chandler, Daniel (2004) Semiotics: The Basics. London: Routledge.

Marriner, R. (2002) ‘Derrida and the Parergon’. In: Smith, P and Wilde, C. eds. A companion to art theory. Blackwell: 349-359.

Marriner, R. (2015) Making and the Contemporary. Bath Spa University. October-December 2015.

Marriner, R (2017) Meanings in Visual Culture. Research Methodologies module. Bath Spa University. 17th October 2017.

Saussure, Ferdinand de ([1916] 1983): Course in General Linguistics (trans. Roy Harris). London: Duckworth.