Towards an Ecology of Understanding: Semiotic, Medium Theory, and The Uses of Meaning

  Author: Marc Leverette
Published: January 2003

Abstract (E): This paper argues for a bridge between the paradigms of semiotics and medium theory. It inquires into how the two paradigms define media (as text, massage, environment, …) and relate them to other components of the communication chain (the message, receiver, channel, …). While some semiotic approaches tend to concentrate on message interpretation, most medium theorists emphasize the medium or media form rather than content. A link between these two theoretical realms can allow for a more cogent analysis of media and their place in society.

Abstract (F): Cet article plaide en faveur d’un rapprochement entre sémiotique et médiologie (“medium theory”). Il analyse la manière dont ces deux paradigmes scientifiques définissent les médias (comme texte, impact, environnement, …), puis les rattachent aux autres composants de la chaîne communicationnelle (message, récepteur, canal…). Là où certaines approches sémiotiques tendent à se concentrer sur l’interprétation des messages, la plupart des théoriciens en médiologie accentuent le média plutôt que le contenu. L’établissement d’un lien entre les domaines respectifs de la sémiotique et de la médiologie peut permettre une analyse plus efficace des médias ainsi que de leur place dans la société.

Keywords: medium theory, semiotics, media ecology, interpretation, McLuhan, media environments


* I would like to thank Lehne Leverette, Todd Gitlin, Tom Harkins, Michael Boyden and the editors of Image and Narrative for their insightful comments and criticisms, as well as Neil Postman and Christine Nystrom for their always stimulating conversation and advice.


Among strands in the debate surrounding the theoretical approach to media, the most important division line seems to be that between form and content, or medium and message. The following paper is a critical analysis of medium theory’s explorations of communication technologies and its (unsatisfactory) incorporation of semiotics’ inquiry into the uses of meaning regarding texts and signs. In my opinion, the two fields have traditionally held oppositional views regarding concepts such as media/medium, content, and interpretation. It is the purpose here to illustrate the need to build a bridge between these two worlds.

The traditional concern of semioticians has been the meaning implicit within particular texts, whereas the main contributions of medium theorists deal with the impact of media or technologies on culture and human consciousness. A weakness of semiotics is often its inability to distinguish between implicit and explicit messages. Its intellectual bias towards interpretation tends to lead to overinterpretation. A weakness of medium theory has been the tendency to trivialize content and dismiss the importance of meaning/message interpretation. The overarching problem that connects the two fields is semantics. Both intellectual frameworks are founded on notions and theories plagued by ambiguities, and are often turgid and contentious bodies of work that are, at times, myopic and circular. To correct these problems, it will be argued that semiotics should form and maintain an active merger with medium theory and vice versa. Through clarification and synthesis, I will argue, semioticians will gain a sense of technological effects, as well as the importance of the medium when reading content on that medium. Alternatively, this will give medium theorists a better appreciation regarding the importance of the quest for meaning and the driving need for dynamic interpretation of texts. I hope to show that medium theorists are actually followers of the tenets of semiotics. Finally, a bridge linking these two theoretical structures will allow for a more coherent and holistic understanding of the media, both in McLuhan’s sense of media as messages and semioticians’ views of messages framed within the media.

Medium Theory and Media Ecology

While semiotics (or semiology) has an intellectual history dating back to Peirce, Saussure, and Vico, medium theory is a relatively new discipline in communication theory. It assumes that large, amalgamated technology presupposes a process of standardization, such as specific historical eras (oral, chirographic, print, and electronic) and relational “effects” on consciousness (e.g. “print creates linearity”). The problem is that medium theory assumes society is nothing but a reverberation of the medium, and that social institutions and interactions are either nonexistent or subordinate. However, this is changing somewhat (for example, McLuhan’s medium theory did not take on a sociological context until Meyrowitz’s use of it). My concern, however, is not with social awareness, but rather with meaning. As a graduate student trying to find a correlation between medium theory and the immersion we maintain daily in what we ominously refer to as simply “the media,” I am concerned by medium theory’s negligence in regard to what the medium’s message actually may mean. Semiotics provides a way of reading a symbol/sign system that allows for connotative and denotative meanings, but at the same time it ignores the form of the message and its role in altering consciousness and the social order. Medium theory, on the other hand, points to the changes brought about by symbol structures, but provides no clear explanation as to the importance of the messages conveyed. Joshua Meyrowitz, in No Sense of Place, describes the limitations of the focus on media content (see Ch. 2) and opts for an approach that bridges medium theory with the “situationism” of Erving Goffman and others.

According to Meyrowitz, in his essay “Medium Theory,” “[m]ost of the questions that engage media researchers and popular observers of the media focus only on one dimension of our media environment: the content of media messages” (50, italics mine). The concern that this was not exhaustive of the questions that could, and should, be asked about the media led him to coin the term discussed herein. He writes:

A handful of scholars – mostly from fields other than communications, sociology, and psychology – have tried to call attention to the potential influences of communication technologies in addition to and apart from the content they convey. I use the singular “medium theory” to describe this research tradition in order to differentiate it from most other “media theory.” Medium theory focuses on the particular characteristics of each individual medium or of each particular type of media (50, italics original; also No Sense 16).

In this way, medium theorists argue that various factors influence how a medium is appropriated by a culture and try to account for its social, political, and psychological impact.

Due to this line of rationale, medium theory is often accused of preaching technological determinism, when in fact it is not. While media forms and structures are internalized and function as unacknowledged catalysts for change within the structure and conduct of thought and discourse, it is the interaction between media technology and human beings that is the object of the medium theorist, and not the technology itself. The most apt metaphor is that of Neil Postman’s “ecology,” which best describes the complex interplay between human, technology,
media, and the environment (see Postman, Teaching). Herein lies the complex concept of the media environment, which is firmly entrenched in Meyrowitz’s perspective, most likely due to his training, under Postman, in Media Ecology at New York University in the late 1970s.

In its essence, media ecology looks at a culture in the biological sense of the word; it is a communication theory based on science and biology metaphors. In biology, if something new enters a culture, it changes the entire culture, not just the new thing itself. This is an underlying principle firmly rooted in systems theory and ecology. “When a new factor is added to an old environment,” Meyrowitz notes, “we do not get the old environment plus the new factor, we get a new environment” (No Sense 19). This is to say, the environment is always more than simply the sum of its parts. This type of examination is the work of the ecologist, both traditional and media.

The term “media ecology” was first employed in November 1968, at the annual meeting of the National Council of Teachers of English in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where Postman used the phrase in a major address for the purpose of suggesting a new direction for the teaching of English (published as “Reformed”). In coining the term, and subsequently the field of study, Postman pointed out that he was not inventing a non-existing discipline, but simply giving a name to the kinds of inquiries in which a number of scholars were already engaged. He cites as examples of practicing media ecologists such people as Lewis Mumford, Harold Innis, Peter Drucker, Jacques Ellul, Marshall McLuhan, Edmund Carpenter, David Riesman, Norbert Wiener, Ray Birdwhistell, and several others (Postman “Reformed” 161). Here the connection between medium theory and media ecology is obvious. McLuhan would have considered himself a media ecologist in this sense: he was trying to create an awareness about the hidden effects of electronic technologies, in much the same fashion that Rachel Carson, in Silent Spring, exposed the unintended consequences of pesticides (Morrison 5-6, 23n3). James Morrison argues that if we see McLuhan in his true light as a “technological environmentalist,” it will expose the blindness of his misperceiving critics who see him as a booster of technology; “in truth, he was no more so than Rachel Carson was a promoter of DDT” (Morrison 6). From this ecological framework, we can see that people today do not merely live in a world of the physical. The world is symbolic. We live in a reality filtered by various media; call it what you will: Plato’s cave wall, the world outside and the pictures in our heads, mediated reality, second-hand world, the media environment, the media torrent. As argued above, when a new technology or new symbol system enters a culture, the entire system will change. The examination of this phenomenon is the work of the media ecologist/medium theorist.

Because it takes an entire system to enable a medium to take effect, the charge of technological determinism doesn’t stand. Technological determinism is a powerful view of the nature of social change, wherein new technologies are discovered serendipitously and then go about altering social change and progress. Progress, in this view, is the history of these inventions, thus history itself, foreseen and unseen, direct and indirect, is nothing more than the effects of these technologies. For example, the steam engine, the automobile, and television are makers of modern man and his condition (Williams 13). But in medium theory’s ecological paradigm we can see that is not the case. For example, the printing press didn’t take hold in China, but it did in Europe several centuries thereafter, for reasons involving the cultural milieu of the age. If a printing press were to end up in the middle of a Brazilian rain forest or an African jungle, it obviously wouldn’t start churning out social change. In order to have an effect it would need to involve the system as a whole. Inspired by the film The Gods Must Be Crazy, Christine Nystrom refers to this line of thought as “coke bottle media ecology” (personal communication, April 4, 2002).

McLuhan and Structuralism

Ecology aside, it becomes increasingly clear that the hard-line medium theory stance is actually a structuralist point of view. That is to say, the examination concentrates on the structure of the symbol system (the medium) to understand the effects of its inherent grammar. Meyrowitz can then be seen as a structuralist, as can McLuhan and for a medium theorist such as McLuhan, content is directly relational to structure. For him, “content,” is an illusion derived “from one medium being ‘within’ or simultaneous to another” (McLuhan and Parker Counterblast 24). This is to say that no medium of communication operates in isolation. McLuhan advanced three hypotheses observing how every medium affects every other medium (Understanding Media).

The first, and most generalized, is that the “content” of a medium is always an older medium. Thus, the “content” of writing is speech, the “content” of print is writing, and so on. The second is that a new medium is always in competition with an older medium for the time, money, attention, and loyalty of the culture into which it is introduced. Part of the heated ferocity of this competition is the fight between allies of the older medium (print, say) and allies of the new (television, for example) wherein, as the preceding principle implies, what is at stake is not merely a technology/medium, but the entire lifestyle that the technology/medium implies. Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death is an elegant example of a “typographic man” trying to come to grips with his place in a television world. The third hypothesis is when a new technology/medium is introduced into a culture and usurps the function of an older technology/medium. Either the older technology/medium will undergo some radical transformation and survive, or it will obsolesce and be preserved as an art form (I am thinking here, for example, of the commodification of handwriting (wedding invitations, etc.) in an age of fast and accessible word processing).

To return to the idea of structuralism, we can observe that since different forms of communication have different ways of encoding reality, the structure (grammar, form) of any medium of communication is, in itself, a message which reveals a certain perception of reality. This is basically what I take McLuhan to mean in his most well known aphorism, “the medium is the message.” Luckily for us, and for the sake of clarity, Edmund Carpenter puts it somewhat less pithily, in “The New Languages”: “Each medium, if its bias is properly exploited,” he writes, “communicates a unique aspect of reality, of truth. Each offers a different perspective, a way of seeing an otherwise hidden dimension of reality… A medium is not simply an envelope that carries any letter; it is itself a major part of that message” (Carpenter 174-6). Accordingly in this view, it is the form of the medium, not the content of the message it carries, that dominates our organization of reality. The structure of the printed book, to take one of Carpenter’s examples, presents a “reality” that has been divided into static units which can be analyzed individually. The structure of television, alternatively, presents a “reality” in which everything happens at once and events are difficult to isolate and analyze (Carpenter 162-6; see also, Nystrom).

But the role of structure is no mere coincidence in McLuhan, who considered himself a structuralist. One of his primary influences, via James Joyce, was Giambattista Vico, who many see as the father of modern structural theory (see Hawkes). McLuhan’s posthumously published Laws of Media: The New Science clearly betrays this influence. In a 1969 letter, McLuhan remarked:

. Vico’s new science was so important for [Joyce's] linguistic probes… Vico was the first to point out that a total history of human
culture and sensibility is embedded in the changing structural forms of language (Letters 385).

Structuralism, in its modern usage, is a European (primarily French) movement in humanities that conceives of any cultural phenomenon as the product of a system of “signification” and attempts to identify a “grammar” of that culture, which could be seen as the rules by which meaning is communicated. By this definition then, McLuhan was a structuralist. In a 1974 letter to historian and popular culture scholar Marshall Fishwick, McLuhan wrote, “…my approach is rightly regarded as ‘structuralist.’ I have acquired that approach through Joyce and Eliot and the Symbolists and use it in The Mechanical Bride. Nobody except myself in the media field has ventured to use the structuralist or ‘existential’ approach” (Letters 506).

A Semiotic Critique of Medium Theory: Eco on McLuhan

With this in mind, we may begin to see the connection between medium theorists and the work of semioticians. But from within semiotics, we find one of McLuhan’s harshest critics. Umberto Eco’s 1967 essay “Cogito Interruptus,” written largely in response to Understanding Media and The Medium is the Massage, reiterates the point that, for McLuhan, the medium makes irrelevant the content transmitted. Taking into account the Guttenbergian habit of linearity, Eco insists readers must come to terms with McLuhan’s denied rationality:

McLuhan has recently realized that perhaps books must no longer be written; and with The Medium is the Massage, his latest “nonbook,” he suggests a discourse in which word is fused with image and the chain of logics are destroyed in favor of a synchronic, visual-verbal proposition, of unreasoned data set spinning before the reader’s intelligence. The trouble is that The Medium is the Massage, to be completely understood, needs Understanding Media as a code (“Cogito” 231-2).

But Eco, the “massage” having rubbed him the wrong way, misses a simple fact: the reason Understanding Media is required to truly break through the Massage is that the latter tome is actually nothing more than a collection of previously published works designed by Quentin Fiore and coordinated by Jerome Agel. In a 1966 letter to William Jovanovich, then president of Harcourt, Brace, & World, Inc., McLuhan writes of The Medium is the Massage: “I didn’t write anything for that book. It is excerpts with pictures… it would be a boost for the other books” (Letters 339). In regard to the often misspelled and misquoted massage title, McLuhan noted the intent was to suggest that “a medium is not something neutral – it does something to people. It takes hold of them. It rubs them off, it massages them, it bumps them around” (from an hour-long NBC-TV program on McLuhan in March 1967, qtd. in Letters 340n5).

Another problem Eco has with McLuhan are his “games of definition.” “Here,” he writes, “we are still at the level of a deliberate regeneration of terminology for provocatory purposes” (“Cogito” 233). But this critique is nothing new. From McLuhan’s use of terms such as “hot,” “cool,” medium,” and so forth, it would appear an academic growth industry was born. (For example, how many times will we read: “What McLuhan really meant when he said was…” See Norvell Chs. 1 and 2 and Leverette “Semantic”.) But Eco, a semiotician by trade, is concerned with meaning in the purest way. “Gutenberg man,” he notes, “and before him, alphabet man had at least taught us to define precisely the terms of our speech. To avoid defining them further precisely to ‘involve’ the reader further… is a trick to throw sand in our eyes” (“Cogito” 233). The drawback to McLuhan’s aphoristic, metaphorical style regarding media is that, for Eco, he seems to be confused as to what a metaphor, or a medium for that matter, actually is. He writes:

It is not true that- as McLuhan says- all the media are active metaphors because they have the power to transmit experience into new forms. In fact, a medium translates experience because it represents a code… But the definition of medium as metaphor also covers a confusion in the definition of medium. To say that it represents an extension of our bodies still means little (“Cogito” 233).

But a metaphor, by definition, is a bridge, performing a kind of carry-over from one domain into another (see Gozzi 79). Within this function, media do qualify as metaphors, but it is the medium theorists’ misuse of meaning that often leads to semantic ambiguities such as these. For example, in a chapter titled “The Medium is the Metaphor,” Neil Postman writes: “Today, we must look to the city of Las Vegas, Nevada, as a metaphor of our national character and aspirations” (Amusing 3). Moreover, he goes on to implicitly recognize the city (Las Vegas), entertainment, and commercialism as the metaphors for his argument, not “the medium” as he proposes in his chapter title and in many overt declarations throughout the text (Flayhan 189).

To return to Eco, it is in McLuhan’s reasoning where the theoretician of communication finds trouble, “because the differences between the channel of communication, the code and the message are not established” (“Cogito” 233, italics original). Alas for Eco, however, McLuhan’s greatest sin is in his playful misuse of the term “content.” McLuhan often saw content as irrelevant, the juicy piece of meat the burglar brings to distract the guard dog, or simply an “illusion” that a medium can be in and simultaneous to another medium (McLuhan and Parker Counterblast 24). Also, particularly with sports, McLuhan saw the “audience” as content. He felt the activities must reflect the image of the audience, because the audience makes and uses games (see McLuhan and Nevitt 145-6 and Leverette Wrestling Ch. 3). For Eco, the receiver is not the content, but the central aspect of the communication process. It is in the receiver where interpretation occurs and meaning is bestowed. He writes: “The medium is not the message; the message becomes what the receiver makes of it, applying to it his own codes of reception, which are neither those of the sender nor those of the scholar of communications… the message depends on the reading given to it” (“Cogito” 235-6, italics original). Where McLuhan had four “laws of media,” the tetrad, Eco has but one: “I would say that variability of interpretation is the constant law of mass communications” (“Towards” 141).

McLuhan as Semiotician

Interestingly enough, interpretation is where McLuhan began, starting his career as a literary critic. As a student of the New Criticism, the notion that a text is active and people receptive can be seen throughout his early work. In 1951, McLuhan published The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man, a collection of fifty-nine concise essays on the sources and meanings of popular culture. Examining comic strips, advertisements, and other promotional imagery of the American press (with playfully chosen illustrations to boot), he writes, “Ours is the first age in which many thousands of the best trained individual minds have made it a full time business to get inside the collective public mind… bringing about this condition of public helplessness” (Mechanical v). Because of McLuhan’s later medium-centric oeuvre, I feel this text is too often ignored.

The Mechanical Bride is interesting in regard to Roland Barthes’s Mythologies. In “Myth Today,” the theoretical essay that concludes Mythologies, Barthes outlines the theoretical assumptions that inform the other essays. He presents a semiotic (Barthes uses “semiological”) model for reading popular culture, essentially adding a second level to de Saussure’s schema of signifier + signified = sign. A few years later, in Elements of Semiology, Barthes clarif
ies the model with the addition of the more familiar terms of denotation and connotation. Denotation is an object’s primary signification and connotation, then, is the secondary signification. He writes: “the first system [denotation] becomes the plane of expression or signifier of the second system [connotation]… The signifiers of connotation… are made up of the signs (signifiers and signified united) of the denotated system” (Elements 89-91).

This is how medium theorists can use semiotics, for they do, in fact, use content by reading (in the semiotic sense of the word) both medium and media environment as a text and face the problem of trying to avoid the obvious (content). The media (as institutions) provide content, not so that it can be avoided, but with the express and ostensible purpose of being seen, heard, read, etc.

Media as Text?

“Text” has become a common nomenclature in the academic discourse about media, particularly under the umbrella of cultural studies. The “textualization” of television is an instructive case.

Sociologist Ron Lembo notes that the term “text” is “well suited for explaining the social complexities of television use” (63). Semiotician John Fiske writes in Television Culture: “no text is simply a pattern of signifiers; a text is a bearer of meaning…” (84). But earlier he writes: “a program becomes a text at the moment of reading…” (14). This leads to a definition of “reader” much in line with Eco’s participatory view, as “the producer of texts, the maker of meanings and pleasures” (Fiske 17). Media ecologist Raymond Gozzi, in The Power of Metaphor in the Age of Electronic Media, argues against this view in “Why Television is Not a Text.” Gozzi is clearly a print lover. His hard-line medium theory stance is constantly compelled to differentiate between the printed word and a televised image, therefore relocating the term “text” to a spot under his all encompassing rubric “metaphor.” In his view, usage of the term “text” will inevitably lead to a “decline in literacy” since the activating schema for reading will become disassociated with the written word (See Gozzi 97). By arguing that “watching television is not ‘reading’ a ‘text,'” Gozzi emphasizes the fact that he has no interest in semiotic exercises such as “reading” (97). His negatively affected reactions, such as “a ‘reading’ is an interpretation” (95, italics original), skate dangerously close to technological determinism and tautology in their denial of human cognitive processes within the steamrolling juggernaut of print’s rolling over of us.

In my view, a text is something to be read and while television as a medium is not a text, the individual electric artifacts disseminated via its flow are. Infomercials, programs, movies, commercials, sports, news, etc. all could, and should, be thoroughly combed over by the textual analyst. In this same vein, print is not a text, but books, magazines, newspapers, pamphlets, billboards, etc. are. Lastly, I must again concede to Lembo: “The textual metaphor is, after all, only one way of characterizing television use” (68).

But however we, as semioticians or as medium theorists, or as both, may classify television, we must realize that the “tube of plenty,” to use Erik Barnouw’s phrase, is one aspect of the larger media environment, a medium among many. The following section can be seen as an introduction to the concept of environment and the various accouterments with which academia associates it.

Media as Environment?

In Counterblast, McLuhan notes, “Media effects are new environments as imperceptible as water is to a fish, subliminal for the most part” (McLuhan and Parker Counterblast 22). Running with this metaphor, he wrote in 1970’s Culture is Our Business, “Fish don’t know water exists till beached” (191). If for the most part the technological environment is invisible to its inhabitants, whoever actually discovered water wasn’t a fish – which means that we are least likely to notice those aspects of our surroundings in which we are most deeply immersed (Nystrom 110). This is what Todd Gitlin refers to as the “torrent” washing over us with an infinite glimmer feeding us disposable feelings only to fade back into the rhythmic twitch of the unceasing flow. In Media Unlimited, he too takes up the discrepancy of McLuhan’s “glib formulation”: “the medium is the message.” He writes, “Media do not simply deliver information,” continuing:

An image or a soundtrack is not simply a set of abstract signs that describe, point to, or represent realities standing elsewhere. Not only do they point; they are. They are wraparound presences with which we live much of our lives. McLuhan was closer to the truth when, in a playful mood, he titled one of his later books The Medium is the Massage (9, italics original).

Though Gitlin’s concern is media as institutions and as a way of life, rather than as technology, the connection between environment and torrent is clear. He continues: “Media are occasions for experiences – experiences which are themselves the main products, the main transactions, the main ‘effects’ of media. This is the big story; the rest is details” (9). And: “the wonder of communications was that the carriers of information did not simply transmit facts or ideology. They occasioned a human experience – a sense of connection to the world” (47). Media are, in fact, our world as we know it.

The notion that there is a hidden environment has so permeated modern discourse that we find the metaphor seeping into other fields. In political science, Benjamin Barber’s capitalist McWorld is a new kind of chilly “virtual reality, created by invisible but omnipotent high-tech information networks and fluid transnational economic markets…” (26). I won’t attempt a discussion of “the global village” metaphor here, but in Barber’s case, “global mall” may be more applicable.

To segue back into McLuhan, we see the importance of the term environment as a metaphor for media. He describes it as, among other things: an “active process” (Understanding vi); “formed by our new technologies,” and imperceptible in its initial reign” (“Guaranteed” 200); processes and not containers (“Information” 199); either visible or invisible (an invisible environment is fragmentary and significant, a visible environment is saturating and visible: an environment is a process and not a container) (“Technology” 5); always invisible, degrading, and a process (McLuhan and Parker Counterblast 30); relying upon all the components in a situation [ecological], and acting as a process (McLuhan and Parker Vanishing 242); changing us (McLuhan and Nevitt 90). Since the environment is in constant flux, much like the torrent overwhelming us, the massage is more apropos than is the message.

In an early essay in his medium-focused epoch, 1955’s “A Historical Approach to the Media,” McLuhan observed that we were fast becoming passive victims, “helpless illiterates,” in the new changing world of technology as the “media themselves act directly toward shaping our most intimate self-consciousness” (110). Nine years later he writes:

Over and over I’ve talked to groups and individuals about new technology as new environment. Content of new environment is old environment. The new environment is always invisible. Only the content shows, and yet only the environment is really active as shaping force (Letters 311, also see the related discussion in McLuhan “Relation”).

Here then, is McLuhan-medium theorist, functionally acting as McLuhan-semiotician, reading the environment as text, extrapolating and illustrating both connotative and denotative levels of meaning. Interpreting the media environment is an important step towards uniting semiotic analysis and medium theory. If we can approach the environment fr
om this two-prong strategy, we will further ourselves in comprehending its “effects,” “messages,” and “massage.”

What McLuhan meant when he wrote “the medium is the massage” was that a medium is a complex and effective “set of events” which change our outlook and the posture of entire groups of people (McLuhan “Change-Overs” 114). Like Poe’s sailor caught in the maelstrom, McLuhan insisted that we cannot understand the technological experience from the outside. We can only comprehend our situation once we’ve realized how the electronic age “works us over.”

All media work us over completely. They are so pervasive in their personal, political, economic, aesthetic, psychological, moral, ethical, and social consequences that they leave no part of us untouched, unaffected, unaltered. The medium is the massage. Any understanding of social and cultural change is impossible without a knowledge of the way media work as environments (McLuhan and Fiore 26).

As Arthur Kroker points out, in Technology and the Canadian Mind, “When McLuhan noted in Counterblast that ‘environment is process, not container,’ [p.30] he meant just this: the effect of all new technologies is to impose, silently and pervasively, their deep assumptions upon the psyche…” (56). Therefore the process that is our environment massages us into reworking our “ratio of senses.” It is from within the media environment that a merger between interpretive semiotics and medium theory becomes a necessity, as McLuhan once said: He, Innis, and other explorers of media environments are like blind men tapping canes in the dark (Meyrowitz No Sense 343n19).

Conclusion: Necessitating a Link

Todd Gitlin, writing about environment or what he calls “the torrent,” describes the problem of managing the unmanageable:

We are aware of its parts but oblivious of its huge place in our day-to-day lives. It is everywhere, too much to take in. It is, in a sense, like nature- that verwhelming presence human beings once found so threatening yet auspicious that they conjured up gods and demons to imagine their way through its ungraspable allness (112).

Semioticians and medium theorists should be called to task to replace the “gods and demons” and contribute a course of navigation in a world where signification, mediation, and an interface with the hidden environment all add to the need for a more functional critical code with which to decipher reality.

Medium theorists need to incorporate semiotics into their paradigm to gain a respect for content and the overarching importance of meaning. And while medium theory needs semiotics to better understand the signs of life, semioticians need medium theory in order to better understand the “allness” of our signified environment. “Cultivating and nourishing desires…” writes Gitlin, “everywhere [media] leave behind deposits of what only can be called a civilization – not an ideology, or a system of belief, but something less resistible, a way of life soaked in feeling, seeming to absorb with equal conviction traces of every idea, or for that matter, the absence of all ideas” (191). The “styles of navigation” need better navigators (see Gitlin Ch. 3).

Before we can grasp at media’s enveloping “allness” we need clarification over our understanding, agreement on what we mean when we say “mean,” and a structuralist approach that will never simply be content with content. Delivery is but one aspect of media’s contact with human existence; to deny messages entirely is to deny the importance of society. The semantic ambiguities of both medium theory and semiotics require “demystification,” not only of the theories alone, but regarding the environment itself if we are to even begin to conceptualize the tremendous Joycean divine thunderclap that is the totality of our modern life with media.


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Leverette, Marc. “The Semantic Sins of Saint Marshall: McLuhan’s Maddening Misuse of Meaning.” Under review.

—. Wrestling Nation: The Myth of the Mat in American Popular Culture. Lewiston, New York: Edwin Mellen Press, forthcoming.

Lippman, Walter. Public Opinion. New York: Free Press, 1922.

McLuhan, Marshall. Culture is Our Business. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1970.

—. “Great Changeovers for You from Gutenberg to Batman: Address to Annenberg School of Communication, Pennsylvania, 28 April 1966.” Vogue 148 (July 1966): 62-3, 114-5, 117.

—. “Guaranteed Income in the Electric Age.” The Guaranteed Income: Next Step in Economic Evolution? Ed. Robert Theobold. Garden City, NJ: Doubleday and Company, 1966. 200.

—. “A Historical Approach to the Media.” Teachers College Record 57:2 (November 1955): 104-10.

—. “Information Hunt Looms Big.” College and University Journal 4 (Spring 1967): 196-208.

—. The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man. Boston: Beacon Press, 1951.

—. “The Relation of Environment to Anti-Environment.” University of Windsor Review 12:1 (Autumn 1966): 1-10. Reprinted as “The Relation of Environment & Anti-Environment.” The Human Dialogue: Perspectives on Communication. Eds. Floyd W. Matson and Ashley Montagu. New York: Free Press, 1967. 39-47.

—. “Technology and Environment.” Arts Canada 105:24 (February 1967): 5-7.

—. “To Henry J. Skornia.” 3 Oct. 1964. Letters of Marshall McLuhan. Eds. Matie Molinaro, Corrine McLuhan, and William Toye. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1987. 311.

—. “To Marshall Fishwick.” 1 Aug. 1974. Letters of Marshall McLuhan. Eds. Matie Molinaro, Corrine McLuhan, and William Toye. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1987. 506.

—. “To Robert J. Leuver.” 30 July 1969. Letters of Marshall McLuhan. Eds. Matie Molinaro, Corrine McLuhan, and William Toye. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1987. 385.

—. “To William Jovanovich.” 1 Dec. 1966. Letters of Marshall McLuhan. Eds. Matie Molinaro, Corrine McLuhan, and William Toye. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1987. 339. 

—. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964.

McLuhan, Marshall and Barrington Nev
itt. Take Today: The Executive as Dropout. New York: Harcourt, Brace, & Jovanovich, 1972. 

McLuhan, Marshall and Eric McLuhan, Laws of Media: The New Science. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1988.

McLuhan, Marshall and Harley Parker. Counterblast. New York: Harcourt, Brace, & World, 1969.

—. Through the Vanishing Point: Space in Poetry and Painting. New York: Harper & Row, 1968.

McLuhan, Marshall, Quentin Fiore, and Jerome Agel. The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects. New York: Bantam Books, 1967.

Meyrowitz, Joshua. “Medium Theory.” Communication Theory Today. Eds. David Crowley and David Mitchell. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1994. 50-77.

—. No Sense of Place: The Impact of Electronic Media on Social Behavior. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Mills, C. Wright. “The Cultural Apparatus.” Power, Politics, and People: The Collected Essays of C. Wright Mills. Ed. I.L. Horowitz. 404-20.

Morrison, James C. “Marshall McLuhan: No Prophet Without Honor.” Ed. Barbara Jo Lewis. New Dimensions in Communication Volume XIII: Proceedings of the 57th Annual Conference of the New York State Communication Association, 1999. 1-28.

Mumford, Lewis. Technics and Civilization. New York: Harcourt, Brace, & World, 1934.

Nystrom, C.L. Toward a Science of Media Ecology: The Formulation of Integrated Conceptual Paradigms for the Study of Human Communication Systems. Diss. New York University, 1973.

Norvell, George Michael. A Reference Dictionary of Terms in the Published Works of Herbert Marshall McLuhan. Diss. University of Maryland, 1979.

Oakeshott, Michael. “A Place of Learning.” The Voice of Liberal Learning: Michael Oakeshott on Education. Ed. Timothy Fuller. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989 (1975 essay). 17-44.

Ong, Walter J. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (London: Routledge, 1982.

—. Rhetoric, Romance and Technology. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1971.

Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. New York: Penguin Books, 1985.

—. “The Reformed English Curriculum.” High School 1980: The Shape of the Future in American Secondary Education. Ed. Alvin C. Eurich. New York: Pitman Publishing Corporation, 1970. 160-8.

—. Teaching as a Conserving Activity. New York: Dell, 1979.

—. Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. New York: Vintage Books, 1992.

Real, Michael R. “Cultural Studies and Mediated Reality.” Journal of Popular Culture 9.2 (1975): 81-5.

Scheuer, Jeffrey The Sound Bite Society: Television and the American Mind. New York: Four Walls, Eight Windows, 1999.

Storey, John. An Introductory Guide to Cultural Theory and Popular Culture. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1993.

Williams, Raymond. Television: Technology and Cultural Form. New York: Schocken, 1975.

    Bio: Marc Leverette is a doctoral student in media studies at Rutgers University. The author of Wrestling Nation: The Myth of the Mat in American Popular Culture (forthcoming), he is currently at work on an intellectual history of medium theory and a study of allusion in popular media.

Takayuki Yokota-Murakami, Don Juan East/West: On the Problematics of Comparative Literature

Takayuki Yokota-Murakami, Don Juan East/West: On the Problematics of Comparative Literature.

Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998.
226 pp. ISBN 0791436667.

Reviewed by Hu Ying
University of California, Irvine

“Comparative literature is humanism,” proclaims René Etiemble in his 1963 book The Crisis in Comparative Literature. This is what Yokota-Murakami sets out to debunk in his recent study Don Juan East/West: both the humanist claim of universalism at the core of Etiemble’s statement as well as the methodology of comparative literature. Yokota-Murakami’s project is a torturous one: in his own words, “I should compare in order to un-compare”(x). Indeed, the very title sets up the comparison of European and Japanese versions of the archetype Don Juan, an expectation that part of the book fulfills, while the rest of the book critiques the methodology underlying just such a comparison. Thus, to some extent, the book reads rather like an unsuccessful research project, a project whose unfeasibility becomes obvious halfway through. Yet, precisely by focusing on the necessary failure of his initial project, the author succeeds in launching a powerful disciplinary critique of the very project of comparative literature.

Don Juan East/West begins with a brief review of the history of comparative literature as a discipline, which was launched in the latter half of the nineteenth century and in approach was largely influenced by comparative linguistics. Until the middle of the twentieth century, scholars primarily engaged in establishing the genealogy of related literary entities across the national boundaries of Europe, with “influence” and “sources” being the operative terms in their comparative study–this is known as the French school of comparative literature. With the critique of nationalist sentiment after the Second World War, the older concept of comparative literature based on European national literary traditions and their connections was widely felt to be inadequate. The postwar atmosphere of humanism and intellectual cosmopolitanism gave rise to the method of applying “theoretical concepts” to cultures within and beyond Europe, thus licensing comparativists to engage in transcivilizational comparisons–this is the American school of comparative literature advocated by Etiemble among others.

While the previous model of influence-tracing is obviously Eurocentric, Yokota-Murakami’s main critique deals with the postwar model of transcivilizational comparison which, he argues, entails “a certain aesthetic violence” (10), “for it cannot be achieved except by a distortion of the object in accordance to the viewer’s paradigm” (187). This paradigm, he asserts, is invariably Western, Don Juan being a case in point. Another point of critique of the “theoretical” approach is its decidedly ahistorical bent (in contrast, the influence-tracing model is historical, although admittedly narrow in scope). The basic assumptions behind such transcivilizational comparisons, Yokota-Murakami argues, are humanist, universalist and essentialist, namely that we all share certain essential human traits that underlie our literature regardless of our cultural/historical specificities. Throw a measure of Orientalism into the mix, and we have the “Eastern Don Juan.”

In some ways, the choice of Don Juan as an example of critique is providential, although the author presents it as incidental. For what better case to illustrate the universalist/essentialist claim of human sexuality? Citing primary sources from Tirso di Molina, Molière, Pushkin and E.T.A. Hoffmann, as well as secondary works from a host of comparativists both European and Japanese (the latter castigated as “colonized” intellectuals), Yokota-Murakami lays bare version after version of claims of Don Juan as the embodiment of the “human essence,” the universal/eternal “male instinct,” “paragon of masculinity,” etc.. In fact, some of the humanist claims are so un-reconstructed that at times the text seems to be beating the proverbial dead horse. Not that the horse of humanist-inflected Eurocentrism is necessarily dead, but the target is a bit too easy, which in turn renders the instrument of critique correspondingly rather more blunt than necessary.

Were the author to have stopped at this critique of humanism and universalism, his project would have been no more (or less) than an extension of the West’s own critique of the Enlightenment tradition, a critique that swung into full force in the 1960s, soon after the American model of transcivilizational comparative literature was introduced. Since this model furnishes the main target of disciplinary critique for Don Juan East/West, it is not surprising that Yokota-Murakami cites Derrida and Foucault frequently to support his own argument. Yet, rather than merely flexing theoretical muscle, the book historicizes sexual ideology in early modern Japan and thus opens up a new field of inquiry aided by theoretical reflection. Through a discussion of how Western romantic love and sexology discourse was introduced into Meiji Japan, Yokota-Murakami demonstrates succinctly the rapid though subtle changes in the Japanese conceptions of love, lust and sexuality, conceptions that are situated within the multiple contexts of Western cultural imperialism, the reemergence of Japanese militarism, and above all, the project of modernity in Japan.

The tools Yokota-Murakami employs at historicization are considerably more refined than those levied against Eurocentrism. They are primarily linguistic: the Japanese translation of Western works during the Meiji era (1852-1912), and specifically, the different semantic and cultural content of the Japanese words employed to translate terms such as “love” and “lust.” Following the implications of a weak version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (that language determines the nature of a culture in which it is spoken), Yokota-Murakami argues that the separation of “spiritual love” from “carnal love” of post-Enlightenment Europe was quite unknown to the pre-Meiji Japan. Engaged in a sort of Foucauldian archeology, Yokota-Murakami unearths the rich etymological meanings attached to different Japanese terms used to translate the Western notion of romantic love, Meiji neologisms which have become standardized and whose origins have therefore long been forgotten. By delving into Meiji-era Japanese dictionaries and tracing the changes of semantic meanings of “love” in the modernist “I-novels” early in the twentieth century, Yokota-Murakami shows how attending to semantic nuance can lead to crucial historical specificity, and he uncovers something truly fascinating: that in the introduction of the Don Juan figure to Japan, there was a process of displacement/erasure with regard to the construction of sexuality. The Don Juan in early Meiji Japan is a narrowly defined Romantic hero, with connotations of spirituality, sincerity, and morality. A certain, some would argue central, quality of Don Juan is erased in the process, a quality that is associated with the more expansive definition of sexuality, an excessive and exorbitant sexuality which incorporates passion as well as sorrow.

This alternative definition of sexuality is displaced from Don Juan to the iro-otoko, a celebrated libertine figure ubiquitous in premodern Japanese fiction, which by Meiji time had become closely associated with the undesirable “feudal past” of Japan. And as such it must be purged from the modernizing Japan. Thus, Don Juan’s evil twin, now known as “lust,” became increasingly pathologized in medical/ scientific discourse, while Don Juan the Romantic hero, with his maximum contrastive power, connoting the desirable modern West, was introduced and celebrated. Yokota-Murakami thus concludes tha
t sexuality as a conceptual framework “is a historical construct that came into being as a specific significative constellation around the turn of the century” (144).

In tracing the emergence of a “modern” sexual paradigm in Japan through a (paradoxically meta-) case-study of Don Juan in Meiji Japan, Yokota-Murakami ultimately argues against comparison itself: “comparative perception, which discovers similitude, inevitably involves exclusion. Exclusion is marginalization. The universal/ identical is maintained only through constantly relegating differences to the field of deviation, barbarism, perversion, illegitimacy, abnormality, and inhumanity” (187). This is when Yokota-Murakami himself may be charged with ahistoricism, in claiming that the postwar American school of comparative literature loses its own historicity and becomes the definitive paradigm for “the comparative perspective.” One might well ask: what happened in the past three or four decades, after Etiemble reinvented the field of comparative literature? The answer is, quite a lot. Maybe not as much in the narrowly defined discipline of comparative literature, which, with the aging and cutting of programs in recent years, has arguably become narrower still, but certainly in the critique of Eurocentrism and the general debate over the “state of the humanities” surrounding such issues as canon formation, multiculturalism and postcolonialism. Some of the participants are indeed comparativists such as Yokota-Murakami himself, or Rey Chow, to cite another famous example whose recent work was reviewed in these pages in the last issue. Incidentally, the French or American schools hardly represent a stronghold on the center of comparative literature nowadays–indeed they have been rather derisively referred to as “the French hour,” “the American hour” (Guillén, The Challenge of Comparative Literature, 1993). And what of the comparative method? Is it inherently violent and exclusive, as Yokota-Murakami polemically argues, or only historically so? While exposing the historicity of such violence, the historicity of the pretense of universalism, as Yokota-Murakami does so well in Don Juan East/West, is there anything we comparativists can recuperate in the method? Or, to put it differently, what do we lose by giving up “the comparative perception” altogether?

Here is one answer from a comparativist who argues, nearly as polemically as Yokota-Murakami, that “cultures are more than just empirically comparative: they are intrinsically comparative,” that they are “fundamentally beside themselves.” In other words, this built-in comparativeness functions to “dislodge normalized, standardized, homogenized, habituated meanings” (James Boon, Other Tribes, Other Scribes, 1982). Should we lose sight of it, we run the risk of believing, however briefly and unwittingly, that there is indeed a premodern Japan, or a Japan, or even an East and a West that have normalized, standardized, homogenized, habituated meanings.

Web Source:

Marxist Media Theory

Marxist Media Theory

The Sapir-Whorf Hypotesys

    Greek Translation now available

    Within linguistic theory, two extreme positions concerning the relationship between language and thought are commonly referred to as ‘mould theories’ and ‘cloak theories’. Mould theories represent language as ‘a mould in terms of which thought categories are cast’ (Bruner et al. 1956, p. 11). Cloak theories represent the view that ‘language is a cloak conforming to the customary categories of thought of its speakers’ (ibid.). The doctrine that language is the ‘dress of thought’ was fundamental in Neo-Classical literary theory (Abrams 1953, p. 290), but was rejected by the Romantics (ibid.; Stone 1967, Ch. 5). There is also a related view (held by behaviourists, for instance) that language and thought are identical. According to this stance thinking is entirely linguistic: there is no ‘non-verbal thought’, no ‘translation’ at all from thought to language. In this sense, thought is seen as completely determined by language.

    The Sapir-Whorf theory, named after the American linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf, is a mould theory of language. Writing in 1929, Sapir argued in a classic passage that:

      Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society. It is quite an illusion to imagine that one adjusts to reality essentially without the use of language and that language is merely an incidental means of solving specific problems of communication or reflection. The fact of the matter is that the ‘real world’ is to a large extent unconsciously built upon the language habits of the group. No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality. The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached… We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation. (Sapir 1958 [1929], p. 69)

    This position was extended in the 1930s by his student Whorf, who, in another widely cited passage, declared that:

      We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages. The categories and types that we isolate from the world of phenomena we do not find there because they stare every observer in the face; on the contrary, the world is presented in a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds – and this means largely by the linguistic systems in our minds. We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way – an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language. The agreement is, of course, an implicit and unstated one, but its terms are absolutely obligatory; we cannot talk at all except by subscribing to the organization and classification of data which the agreement decrees. (Whorf 1940, pp. 213-14; his emphasis)

    I will not attempt to untangle the details of the personal standpoints of Sapir and Whorf on the degree of determinism which they felt was involved, although I think that the above extracts give a fair idea of what these were. I should note that Whorf distanced himself from the behaviourist stance that thinking is entirely linguistic (Whorf 1956, p. 66). In its most extreme version ‘the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis’ can be described as consisting of two associated principles. According to the first, linguistic determinism, our thinking is determined by language. According to the second, linguistic relativity, people who speak different languages perceive and think about the world quite differently.

    On this basis, the Whorfian perspective is that translation between one language and another is at the very least, problematic, and sometimes impossible. Some commentators also apply this to the ‘translation’ of unverbalized thought into language. Others suggest that even within a single language any reformulation of words has implications for meaning, however subtle. George Steiner (1975) has argued that any act of human communication can be seen as involving a kind of translation, so the potential scope of Whorfianism is very broad indeed. Indeed, seeing reading as a kind of translation is a useful reminder of the reductionism of representing textual reformulation simply as a determinate ‘change of meaning’, since meaning does not reside in the text, but is generated by interpretation. According to the Whorfian stance, ‘content’ is bound up with linguistic ‘form’, and the use of the medium contributes to shaping the meaning. In common usage, we often talk of different verbal formulations ‘meaning the same thing’. But for those of a Whorfian persuasion, such as the literary theorist Stanley Fish, ‘it is impossible to mean the same thing in two (or more) different ways’ (Fish 1980, p. 32). Reformulating something transforms the ways in which meanings may be made with it, and in this sense, form and content are inseparable. From this stance words are not merely the ‘dress’ of thought.

    The importance of what is ‘lost in translation’ varies, of course. The issue is usually considered most important in literary writing. It is illuminating to note how one poet felt about the translation of his poems from the original Spanish into other European languages (Whorf himself did not in fact regard European languages as significantly different from each other). Pablo Neruda noted that the best translations of his own poems were Italian (because of its similarities to Spanish), but that English and French ‘do not correspond to Spanish – neither in vocalization, or in the placement, or the colour, or the weight of words.’ He continued: ‘It is not a question of interpretative equivalence: no, the sense can be right, but this correctness of translation, of meaning, can be the destruction of a poem. In many of the translations into French – I don’t say in all of them – my poetry escapes, nothing remains; one cannot protest because it says the same thing that one has written. But it is obvious that if I had been a French poet, I would not have said what I did in that poem, because the value of the words is so different. I would have written something else’ (Plimpton 1981, p. 63). With more ‘pragmatic’ or less ‘expressive’ writing, meanings are typically regarded as less dependent on the particular form of words used. In most pragmatic contexts, paraphrases or translations tend to be treated as less fundamentally problematic. However, even in such contexts, particular words or phrases which have an important function in the original language may be acknowledged to present special problems in translation. Even outside the humanities, academic texts concerned with the social sciences are a case in point.

    The Whorfian perspective is in strong contrast to the extreme universalism of those who adopt the cloak theory. The Neo-Classical idea of language as simply the dress of thought is based on the assumption that the same thought can be expressed in a variety of ways. Universalists argue that we can say whatever we want to say in any language, and that whatever we say in one language can always be translated into another. This is the basis for the most common refutation of Whorfianism. ‘The fact is,’ insists the philosopher Karl Popper, ‘that even totally different languages are not untranslatable’ (Popper 1970, p. 56). The evasive use here of ‘not untranslatab
    le’ is ironic. Most universalists do acknowledge that translation may on occasions involve a certain amount of circumlocution.

    Individuals who regard writing as fundamental to their sense of personal and professional identity may experience their written style as inseparable from this identity, and insofar as writers are ‘attached to their words’, they may favour a Whorfian perspective. And it would be hardly surprising if individual stances towards Whorfianism were not influenced by allegiances to Romanticism or Classicism, or towards either the arts or the sciences. As I have pointed out, in the context of the written word, the ‘untranslatability’ claim is generally regarded as strongest in the arts and weakest in the case of formal scientific papers (although rhetorical studies have increasingly blurred any clear distinctions). And within the literary domain, ‘untranslatability’ was favoured by Romantic literary theorists, for whom the connotative, emotional or personal meanings of words were crucial (see Stone 1967, pp. 126-7, 132, 145).

    Whilst few linguists would accept the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in its ‘strong’, extreme or deterministic form, many now accept a ‘weak’, more moderate, or limited Whorfianism, namely that the ways in which we see the world may be influenced by the kind of language we use. Moderate Whorfianism differs from extreme Whorfianism in these ways:

    • the emphasis is on the potential for thinking to be ‘influenced’ rather than unavoidably ‘determined’ by language;
    • it is a two-way process, so that ‘the kind of language we use’ is also influenced by ‘the way we see the world';
    • any influence is ascribed not to ‘Language’ as such or to one language compared with another, but to the use within a language of one variety rather than another (typically a sociolect – the language used primarily by members of a particular social group);
    • emphasis is given to the social context of language use rather than to purely linguistic considerations, such as the social pressure in particular contexts to use language in one way rather than another.

    Of course, some polemicists still favour the notion of language as a strait-jacket or prison, but there is a broad academic consensus favouring moderate Whorfianism. Any linguistic influence is now generally considered to be related not primarily to the formal systemic structures of a language (langue to use de Saussure’s term) but to cultural conventions and individual styles of use (or parole). Meaning does not reside in a text but arises in its interpretation, and interpretation is shaped by sociocultural contexts. Conventions regarding what are considered appropriate uses of language in particular social contexts exist both in ‘everyday’ uses of language and in specialist usage. In academia, there are general conventions as well as particular ones in each disciplinary and methodological context. In every subculture, the dominant conventions regarding appropriate usage tend to exert a conservative influence on the framing of phenomena. From the media theory perspective, the sociolects of sub-cultures and the idiolects of individuals represent a subtly selective view of the world: tending to support certain kinds of observations and interpretations and to restrict others. And this transformative power goes largely unnoticed, retreating to transparency.

    Marshall McLuhan argued in books such as The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) and Understanding Media (1964) that the use of new media was the prime cause of fundamental changes in society and the human psyche. The technological determinism of his stance can be seen as an application of extreme Whorfianism to the nature of media in general. Similarly, the extreme universalism of the cloak theorists has its media counterpart in the myth of technological neutrality (Winner 1977; Bowers 1988). My own approach involves exploring the applicability of moderate Whorfianism to the use of media.


    • Abrams, M. H. (1953): The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition. Oxford: Oxford University Press
    • Bowers, C. A. (1988): The Cultural Dimensions of Educational Computing: Understanding the Non-Neutrality of Technology. New York: Teachers College Press
    • Bruner, J. S., J. S. Goodnow & G. A. Austin ([1956] 1962): A Study of Thinking. New York: Wiley
    • Fish, S. (1980): Is There a Text in This Class? The Authority of Interpretative Communities. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press
    • McLuhan, M. (1962): The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul
    • McLuhan, M. (1964): Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill
    • Plimpton, G. (ed.) (1963-1988): Writers at Work: The ‘Paris Review’ Interviews, Vol. 5, 1981. London: Secker & Warburg/ Harmondsworth: Penguin (pagination differs)
    • Popper, K. (1970): ‘Normal Science and its Dangers’. In I. Lakatos & A. Musgrave (eds.) (1970): Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge. London: Cambridge University Press
    • Sapir, E. (1929): ‘The Status of Linguistics as a Science’. In E. Sapir (1958): Culture, Language and Personality (ed. D. G. Mandelbaum). Berkeley, CA: University of California Press
    • Steiner, G. (1975): After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation. London: Oxford University Press
    • Stone, P. W. K. (1967): The Art of Poetry 1750-1820: Theories of Poetic Composition and Style in the Late Neo-Classic and Early Romantic Periods. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul
    • Whorf, B. L. (1940): ‘Science and Linguistics’, Technology Review 42(6): 229-31, 247-8. Also in B. L. Whorf (1956): Language, Thought and Reality (ed. J. B. Carroll). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press
    • Winner, L. (1977): Autonomous Technology: Technics-Out-Of-Control as a Theme in Political Thought. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press

Semiotics for Beginners

Tools for Analyzing Prose Fiction

Tools for Analyzing Prose Fiction

Narratology is a type of formalist criticism that explains and analyzes the structures, modes, and techniques of narrative. See Abrams, “Narrative and Narratology” (123-25), “Plot” (159-63), “Point of View” (165-69).

Narrative: story comprising characters, their dialogue and actions, and the events in which they participate.

Point of View: the way a story is told; the perspectives which are presented to the reader

  • First-Person Narrative: the narrator refers to him/herself with the pronouns “I” and “me”
    • Protagonist or Participant/Observer
    • Self-consciously narrating or Unself-consciously narrating
    • Reliable or Unreliable/Fallible
  • Third-Person Narrative: the story is told in the third-person, with pronouns “I” and “me” used only in dialogue
    • Omniscient: narrator knows everything about all characters, events, etc.; omniscient narrators may also occasionally employ embedded focalizers, characters whose perspectives temporarily control the narrative
      • Intrusive: narrator comments on and evaluates characters and actions; establishes what counts as facts and values in the narrative
      • Unintrusive/Impersonal/Objective: narrator “shows rather than tells”; does not explicitly comment on or evaluate the actions
    • Limited Point of View: narrative is controlled by through the limited perspectives of one main character (or a very few important characters) who does not know everything; such a third- person focalizer is often called a center of consciousness

Varieties of Authorial Voice:

  • Published Attribution::
    • Anonymous
    • Obvious pseudonyms (male, female)
    • Purportedly real names (male, female)
  • Authorial Voice or Standpoint:
    • Ungendered/gender-neutral voices
      • Obtrusive or Unobtrusive
      • Universalized or Located/Situated
    • Gendered voices
      • Overtly claimed masculine or feminine standpoint
      • Implied masculine or feminine standpoint
      • Transparently counterfeit masculine or feminine standpoint

Comparative Literature: An Overview

comparative literature

Comparative literature (sometimes abbreviated “Comp. lit.”) is critical scholarship dealing with the literature of two or more different linguistic, cultural or national groups. While most frequently practiced with works of different languages, it may also be performed on works of the same language if the works originate from different nations or cultures among which that language is spoken. Also included in the range of inquiry are comparisons of different types of art; for example, a comparatist might investigate the relationship of film to literature.


Students and instructors in the field, usually called “comparatists,” have traditionally been proficient in several languages and acquainted with the literary traditions and major literary texts of those languages. Some of the newer sub-fields, however, stress theoretical acumen and the ability to consider different types of art concurrently, over high linguistic competence.

The interdisciplinary nature of the field means that comparatists typically exhibit some acquaintance with translation studies, sociology, critical theory, cultural studies and history. As a result, comparative literature programs within universities may be designed by scholars drawn from several such departments. This eclecticism has led critics (from within and without) to charge that Comparative Literature is insufficiently well-defined, or that comparatists too easily fall into dilettantism, because the scope of their work is, of necessity, broad. Some question whether this breadth affects the ability of Ph.D.s to find employment in the highly specialized environment of academia and the career market at large, although such concerns do not seem to be borne out by placement data that shows Comp Lit graduates to be hired at similar or better rates than their compeers in English.[1]

Since WWII, there have been three major international conferences in Comparative Literature: in 1965, 1975 and 1993. The published notes from each conference reveal the contested nature of the field, and deal largely with disputes over theoretic rigor, linguistic incompatibility and the fundamental goals of the field.

Notable English-language comparatists include H.M Posnett, Susan Bassnett, Charles Bernheimer, Terry Eagleton, Edward Said, and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak.

Early work

The work considered foundational to the field, and the first to be so-titled, was New Zealand scholar H.M Posnett’s Comparative Literature, published during the 1860s. However, antecedents can be found in the ideas of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, whose vision of “world literature” was widely cited by Posnett. In addition, the novels of Honor�� de Balzac, many of which ruminate on the supposed “nature” of people from different nations, could be interpreted as an early form of comparativism, albeit fictionalized.

During the late 19th Century, comparatists were chiefly concerned with deducing the purported “national character” or “spirit of the people”, which they assumed to be embodied in the literary output of each nation. Although many comparative works from this period would be judged chauvinistic, Eurocentric or even racist by present-day standards, the intention of most scholars during this period was to increase the understanding of other cultures, not to assert superiority over them (although politicians and others from outside the field used their works for this purpose).

French School

In the early part of the 20th century until WWII, the field was characterised by a notably empiricist and positivist approach, termed the “French School”, in which scholars examined works forensically, looking for evidence of “origins” and “influences” between works from different nations. Thus a scholar might attempt to trace how a particular literary idea or motif traveled between nations over time.

American School

Reacting to the French School, postwar scholars, collectively termed the “American School”, sought to return the field to matters more directly concerned with literary criticism, de-emphasising the detective work and detailed historical research that the French School had demanded. The American School was more closely aligned with the original internationalist visions of Goethe and Posnett (arguably reflecting the postwar desire for international co-operation), looking for examples of universal human “truths” based on the literary archetypes that appeared throughout literatures from all times and places.

Prior to the advent of the American School, the scope of
comparative literature in the West was typically limited to the literature of Western Europe and North America, predominantly literature in English, German and French literature, with occasional forays into Italian literature (primarily for Dante) and Spanish literature (primarily for Cervantes). One monument to the approach of this period is Erich Auerbach‘s book Mimesis, a survey of techniques of realism in texts whose origins span several continents and three thousand years.

The approach of the American School would be familiar to current practitioners of Cultural Studies and is even claimed by some to be the forerunner of the Cultural Studies boom in universities during the 1970s and 1980s. The field today is highly diverse: for example, comparatists routinely study Chinese literature, Arabic literature and the literatures of most other major world languages and regions as well as English and continental European literatures.

Current developments

Indeed, there is a movement amongst some comparatists to re-focus the field entirely away from the nation-based approach with which it has previously been associated (see Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Death of a Discipline, Columbia University Press, 2004; or Steven Totosy de Zepetnek‘s framework of comparative cultural studies). These scholars advocate a cross-cultural approach that pays no heed to national borders. It remains to be seen whether this approach will be successful, given that the field had its roots in nation-based thinking and that much of the literature under study was (and is) inspired by issues relating directly to the nation-state.

External links

Theory of Semiotic

General concepts
Biosemiotics · Code
Computational semiotics
Connotation · Decode
Denotation · Encode
Lexical · Modality
Salience · Sign
Sign relation · Sign relational complex
Semiosis · Semiosphere
Semiotic literary criticism
Triadic relation
Umwelt · Value
Commutation test Paradigmatic analysis Syntagmatic analysis
Roland Barthes · Marcel Danesi
Ferdinand de Saussure
Umberto Eco · Louis Hjelmslev
Roman Jakobson · Roberta Kevelson
Charles Peirce · Thomas Sebeok
Topics of interest
Aestheticization as propaganda Aestheticization of violence Americanism
Semiotics of Ideal Beauty

Semiotics, or semiology, is the study of signs and symbols, both individually and grouped in sign systems. It includes the study of how meaning is constructed and understood. Semioticians also sometimes examine how organisms make predictions about and adapt to their semiotic niche in the world (see semiosis). Semiotics theorises at a general level about signs, while the study of the communication of information in living organisms is covered in biosemiotics or zoosemiosis.

The term, then spelt semeiotics (Greek: σημειωτικός, semeiotikos, an interpreter of signs), was first used in English by Henry Stubbes (1670, p. 75) in a very precise sense to denote the branch of medical science relating to the interpretation of signs. John Locke (1690) used the term semeiotics in Book 4, Chapter 21 of An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Here he explains how science can be divided into three parts:

All that can fall within the compass of human understanding, being either, first, the nature of things, as they are in themselves, their relations, and their manner of operation: or, secondly, that which man himself ought to do, as a rational and voluntary agent, for the attainment of any end, especially happiness: or, thirdly, the ways and means whereby the knowledge of both the one and the other of these is attained and communicated; I think science may be divided properly into these three sorts. (Locke, 1823/1963, p. 174).

Locke then elaborates on the nature of this third category, naming it Σημειωτικη (Semeiotike) and explaining it as “the doctrine of signs” in the following terms:

Nor is there any thing to be relied upon in Physick, but an exact knowledge of medicinal phisiology (founded on observation, not principles), semeiotics, method of curing, and tried (not excogitated,[1] not commanding) medicines. (Locke, 1823/1963, 4.21.4, p. 175).

Clarification of terms

Semioticians classify signs and sign systems in relation to the way they are transmitted (see modality). This process of carrying meaning depends on the use of codes that may be the individual sounds or letters that humans use to form words, the body movements they make to show attitude or emotion, or even something as general as the clothes they wear. To coin a word to refer to a thing (see lexical words), the community must agree on a simple meaning (a denotative meaning) within their language. But that word can transmit that meaning only within the language’s grammatical structures and codes (see syntax and semantics). Codes also represent the values of the culture, and are able to add new shades of connotation to every aspect of life.

To explain the relationship between semiotics and communication studies, communication is defined as the process of transferring data from a source to a receiver as efficiently and effectively as possible. Hence, communication theorists construct models based on codes, media, and contexts to explain the biology, psychology, and mechanics involved. Both disciplines also recognise that the technical process cannot be separated from the fact that the receiver must decode the data, i.e. be able to distinguish the data as salient and make meaning out of it. This implies that there is a necessary overlap between semiotics and communication. Indeed, many of the concepts are shared, although in each field the emphasis is different. In Messages and Meanings: An Introduction to Semiotics, Marcel Danesi (1994), suggested that semioticians’ priorities were to study signification first and communication second. A more extreme view is offered by Jean-Jacques Nattiez (1987; trans. 1990: 16) who, as a musicologist, considered the theoretical study of communication irrelevant to his application of semiotics.

Semiotics differs from linguistics in that it generalizes the definition of a sign to encompass signs in any medium or sensory modality. Thus it broadens the range of sign systems and sign relations, and extends the definition of language in what amounts to its widest analogical or metaphorical sense.

Perhaps more difficult is the distinction between semiotics and the philosophy of language. In a sense, the difference is a difference of traditions more than a difference of subjects. Different authors have called themselves “philosopher of language” or “semiotician”. This difference does not match the separation between analytic and continental philosophy. On a closer look, there may be found some differences regarding subjects. Philosophy of language pays more attention to natural languages or to languages in general, while semiotics is deeply concerned about non-linguistic signification. Philosophy of language also bears a stronger connection to linguistics, while semiotics is closer to some of the humanities (including literary theory and cultural anthropology).

Semiosis or semeiosis is the process that forms meaning from any organism’s apprehension of the world through signs.


The importance of signs and signification has been recognised throughout much of the history of philosophy, and in psychology as well. Plato and Aristotle both explored the relationship between signs and the world, and Augustine considered the nature of the sign within a conventional system. These theories have had a lasting effect in Western philosophy, especially through Scholastic philosophy. More recently, Umberto Eco, in his “Semiotics and philosophy of language” has argued that semiotic theories are implicit in the work of most, perhaps all, major thinkers.

Some important semioticians

Charles Sanders Peirce (18391914), the founder of the philosophical doctrine known as pragmatism, preferred the term “semeiotic.” He defined semiosis as “…action, or influence, which is, or involves, a cooperation of three subjects, such as a sign, its object, and its interpretant, this tri-relative influence not being in any way resolvable into actions between pairs.” (“Pragmatism”, Essential Peirce 2: 411; written 1907). His notion of semiosis evolved throughout his career, beginning with the triadic relation just described, and ending with a system consisting of 59,049 (= 310, or 3 to the 10th power) possible elements and relations. One reason for this high number is that he allowed each interpretant to act as a sign, thereby creating a new signifying relation. Peirce was also a notable logician, and he considered semiotics and logic as facets of a wider theory. For a summary of Peirce’s contributions to semiotics, see Liszka (1996).

Ferdinand de Saussure (18571913), the “father” of modern linguistics, proposed a dualistic notion of signs, relating the signifier as the form of the word or phrase uttered, and to the signified as the mental concept. It is important to note that, according to Saussure, the sign is completely arbitrary, i.e. there was no necessary connection between the sign and its meaning. This sets him apart from previous philosophers such as Plato or the Scholastics, who thought that there must be some connection between a signifier and the object it signifies. In his Course in General Linguistics, Saussure himself credits the American linguist William Dwight Whitney (1827-1894) with insisting on the arbitrary nature of the sign. Saussure’s insistence on the arbitrariness of the sign has also greatly influenced later philosophers, especially postmodern theorists such as Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes, and Jean Baudrillard. Ferdinand de Saussure coined the term semiologie while teaching his landmark “Course on General Linguistics” at the University of Geneva from 190611. Saussure posited that no word is inherently meaningful. Rather a word is only a “signifier,” i.e. the representation of something, and it must be combined in the brain with the “signified,” or the thing itself, in order to form a meaning-imbued “sign.” Saussure believed that dismantling signs was a real science, for in doing so we come to an empirical understanding of how humans synthesize physical stimuli into words and other abstract concepts.

Louis Trolle Hjelmslev (18991965) developed a structuralist approach to Saussure’s theories. His best known work is Prolegomena: A Theory of Language, which was expanded in Resumé of the Theory of Language, a formal development of glossematics, his scientific calculus of language.

Charles W. Morris (19011979). In his 1938 Foundations of the Theory of Signs, he defined semiotics as grouping the triad syntax, semantics, and pragmatics. Syntax studies the interrelation of the signs, without regard to meaning. Semantics studies the relation between the signs and the objects to which they apply. Pragmatics studies the relation between the sign system and its human (or animal) user. Unlike his mentor George Herbert Mead, Morris was a behaviorist and sympathetic to the Vienna Circle positivism of his colleague Rudolf Carnap. Morris has been accused of misreading Peirce.

Umberto Eco made a wider audience aware of semiotics by various publications, most notably A Theory of Semiotics and his novel The Name of the Rose which includes applied semiotic operations. His most important contributions to the field bear on interpretation, encyclopedia, and model reader. He has also criticized in several works (A theory of semiotics, La struttura assente, Le signe, La production de signes) the “iconism” or “iconic signs” (taken from Peirce’s most famous triadic relation, based on indexes, icons, and symbols), to which he purposes four modes of sign production: recognition, ostentation, replica, and invention.

Algirdas Julius Greimas developed a structural version of semiotics named generative semiotics, trying to shift the focus of discipline from signs to systems of signification. His theories develop the ideas of Saussure, Hjelmslev, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty.

Thomas A. Sebeok, a student of Charles W. Morris, was a prolific and wide-ranging American semiotician. Though he insisted that animals are not capable of language, he expanded the purview of semiotics to include non-human signaling and communication systems, thus raising some of the issues addressed by philosophy of mind and coining the term zoosemiotics. Sebeok insisted that all communication was made possible by the relationship between an organism and the environment it lives in. He also posed the equation between semiosis (the activity of interpreting signs) and life – the view that has further developed by Copenhagen-Tartu biosemiotic school.

Juri Lotman (19221993) was the founding member of the Tartu (or Tartu-Moscow) Semiotic School. He developed a semiotic approach to the study of culture and established a communication model for the study of text semiotics. He also introduced the concept of the semiosphere. Among his Moscow colleagues were Vladimir Toporov, Vyacheslav Vsevolodovich Ivanov, and Boris Uspensky.

Valentin Volosinov (Russian: Валенти́н Никола́евич Воло́шинов) (1895June 13, 1936) was a Soviet/Russian linguist, whose work has been influential in the field of literary theory and Marxist theory of ideology. Written in the late 1920s in the USSR, Voloshinov’s Marxism and the Philosophy of Language (tr.: Marksizm i Filosofiya Yazyka) attempted to incorporate Saussure’s linguistic insights into Marxism.

Current applications

Color-coding hot- and cold-water faucets is common in many cultures, but, as this example shows, even it is not universal.

Color-coding hot- and cold-water faucets is common in many cultures, but, as this example shows, even it is not universal.

Applications of semiotics include:

  • It represents a methodology for the analysis of texts regardless of modality. For these purposes, “text” is any message preserved in a form whose existence is independent of both sender and receiver;
  • Its concepts and methods are highly portable, and have enriched our understanding of many disciplines, e.g., biology, anthropology, computing, engineering, linguistics, mathematics, philosophy, and psychology;
  • It can improve ergonomic design in situations where it is important to ensure that human beings can interact more effectively with their environments, whether it be on a large scale, as in architecture, or on a small scale, such as the configuration of instrumentation for human use.

Semiotics is only slowly establishing itself as a discipline to be respected. In some countries, its role is limited to literary criticism and an appreciation of audio and visual media, but this narrow focus can inhibit a more general study of the social and political forces shaping how different media are used and their dynamic status within modern culture. Issues of technological determinism in the choice of media and the design of communication strategies assume new importance in this age of mass media. The use of semiotic methods to reveal different levels of meaning and, sometimes, hidden motivations has led some to demonise elements of the subject as Marxist, nihilist, etc. (e.g. critical discourse analysis in Postmodernism and deconstruction in Post-structuralism).

Publication of research is both in dedicated journals such as Sign Systems Studies, established by Juri Lotman and published by Tartu University Press; Semiotica, founded by Sebeok, Zeitschrift für Semiotik; European Journal of Semiotics; Versus (founded and directed by Eco), et al.; and as articles accepted in periodicals
of other disciplines, especially journals oriented toward philosophy and cultural criticism.


Semiotics has sprouted a number of subfields, including but not limited to the following:

  • Biosemiotics is the study of semiotic processes at all levels of biology, or a semiotic study of living systems.
  • Music semiology “There are strong arguments that music inhabits a semiological realm which, on both ontogenetic and phylogenetic levels, has developmental priority over verbal language.” (Middleton 1990, p.172) See Nattiez (1976, 1987, 1989), Stefani (1973, 1986), Baroni (1983), and Semiotica (66: 1–3 (1987)).
  • Urban semiotics
  • Law and Semiotics
  • Visual semiotics — a subdomain of semiotics that analyses visual signs. See also visual rhetoric [[1]].


  1. ^ That is, “thought out”, “contrived”, or “devised” (Oxford English Dictionary).

References and further reading

  • Barthes, Roland. ([1957] 1987). Mythologies. New York: Hill & Wang.
  • Barthes, Roland ([1964] 1967). Elements of Semiology. (Translated by Annette Lavers & Colin Smith). London: Jonathan Cape.
  • Chandler, Daniel. (2002). Semiotics: The Basics. London: Routledge.
  • Culler, Jonathan (1975). Structuralist Poetics: Structuralism, Linguistics and the Study of Literature. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
  • Danesi, Marcel & Perron, Paul. (1999). Analyzing Cultures: An Introduction and Handbook. Bloomington: Indiana UP.
  • Danesi, Marcel. (1994). Messages and Meanings: An Introduction to Semiotics. Toronto: Canadian Scholars’ Press.
  • Danesi, Marcel. (2002). Understanding Media Semiotics. London: Arnold; New York: Oxford UP.
  • Deely, John. (2005 [1990]). Basics of Semiotics. 4th ed. Tartu: Tartu University Press.
  • Derrida, Jacques (1981). Positions. (Translated by Alan Bass). London: Athlone Press.
  • Eagleton, Terry. (1983). Literary Theory: An Introduction. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
  • Eco, Umberto. (1976). A Theory of Semiotics. London: Macmillan.
  • Foucault, Michel. (1970). The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. London: Tavistock.
  • Greimas, Algirdas. (1987). On Meaning: Selected Writings in Semiotic Theory. (Translated by Paul J Perron & Frank H Collins). London: Frances Pinter.
  • Hjelmslev, Louis (1961). Prolegomena to a Theory of Language. (Translated by Francis J. Whitfield). Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
  • Hodge, Robert & Kress, Gunther. (1988). Social Semiotics. Ithaca: Cornell UP.
  • Lacan, Jacques. (1977) Écrits: A Selection. (Translated by Alan Sheridan). New York: Norton.
  • Lidov, David (1999) Elements of Semiotics. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
  • Liszka, J. J., 1996. A General Introduction to the Semeiotic of C.S. Peirce. Indiana University Press.
  • Locke, J., The Works of John Locke, A New Edition, Corrected, In Ten Volumes, Vol.III, T. Tegg, (London), 1823. (facsimile reprint by Scientia, (Aalen), 1963.)
  • Lotman, Yuri L. (1990). Universe of the Mind: A Semiotic Theory of Culture. (Translated by Ann Shukman). London: I.B. Tauris.
  • Sebeok, Thomas A. (Editor) (1977). A Perfusion of Signs. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press
  • Stubbe, H. (Henry Stubbes), The Plus Ultra reduced to a Non Plus: Or, A Specimen of some Animadversions upon the Plus Ultra of Mr. Glanvill, wherein sundry Errors of some Virtuosi are discovered, the Credit of the Aristotelians in part Re-advanced; and Enquiries made…., (London), 1670.
  • Williamson, Judith. (1978). Decoding Advertisemen
    ts: Ideology and Meaning in Advertising
    . London: Boyars.



European critical movement of the mid-20th century. It is based on the linguistic theories of Ferdinand de Saussure, which hold that language is a self-contained system of signs, and the cultural theories of Claude Lévi-Strauss, which hold that cultures, like languages, can be viewed as systems of signs and analyzed in terms of the structural relations among their elements. Central to structuralism is the notion that binary oppositions (e.g., male/female, public/private, cooked/raw) reveal the unconscious logic or “grammar” of a system. Literary structuralism views literary texts as systems of interrelated signs and seeks to make explicit their hidden logic. Prominent figures in the structuralist movement are Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, Roman Jakobson, and Roland Barthes. Areas of study that have adopted and developed structuralist premises and methodologies include semiotics and narratology. See also deconstruction.

structuralism, theory that uses culturally interconnected signs to reconstruct systems of relationships rather than studying isolated, material things in themselves. This method found wide use from the early 20th cent. in a variety of fields, especially linguistics, particularly as formulated by Ferdinand de Saussure and Roman Jakobson. Anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss used structuralism to study the kinship systems of different societies. No single element in such a system has meaning except as an integral part of a set of structural connections. These interconnections are said to be binary in nature and are viewed as the permanent, organizational categories of experience. Structuralism has been influential in literary criticism and history, as with the work of Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault. In France after 1968 this search for the deep structure of the mind was criticized by such “poststructuralists” as Jacques Derrida, who abandoned the goal of reconstructing reality scientifically in favor of “deconstructing” the illusions of metaphysics (see semiotics).

For the use of structuralism in biology, see Structuralism (biology)

Structuralism is best known as a theory in the humanities. However, it may more accurately be described as an approach in academic disciplines in general that explores the relationships between fundamental principal elements in language, literature, and other fields upon which some higher mental, linguistic, social, or cultural “structures” and “structural networks” are drawn. Through these networks meaning is produced within a particular person, system, or culture. Structuralism as a field of academic interest began around 1958 and peaked in the late 60’s and early 70’s.


Structuralism appeared in academia for the first time in the 19th century and then reappeared in the second half of the 20th century, when it grew to become one of the most popular approaches in academic fields concerned with analyzing language, culture, and society. The work of Ferdinand de Saussure concerning linguistics is generally considered to be a starting point of 20th century structuralism. The term “structuralism” itself appeared in the works of French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, and gave rise, in France, to the “structuralist movement,” which spurred the work of such thinkers as Michel Foucault, Louis Althusser, the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, as well as the structural Marxism of Nicos Poulantzas. Almost all members of this so-called movement denied that they were part of it. Structuralism is closely related to semiotics. Post-structuralism attempted to distinguish its
elf from the use of the structural method. Deconstruction was an attempt to break with structuralistic thought. Some intellectuals like Julia Kristeva, for example, took structuralism (and Russian formalism) for a starting point to later become prominent post-structuralists. Structuralism has had varying degrees of influence in the social sciences: a great deal in the field of sociology, hardly any in economics.

Structuralism in psychology (19th century)

At the turn of the 19th century the founding father of experimental psychology Wilhelm Wundt tried to confirm experimentally his hypothesis that conscious mental life can be broken down into fundamental elements, which then form more complex mental structures. In this part of the 19th century, researchers were making great advances in chemistry and physics by analysing complex compounds (molecules) in terms of their elements (atoms). These successes encouraged psychologists to look for the mental elements of which more complex experiences were composed. If the chemist made headway by analysing water into oxygen and hydrogen, perhaps the psychologist could make headway by considering a perception, e.g., the taste of lemonade, to be a “molecule” of conscious experience which can be analysed into elements of conscious experience: e.g., sweet, sour, cold, warm, bitter, and whatever else could be identified by introspection. A major believer was the psychologist Edward B. Titchener who was trained by Wundt and worked at Cornell University. Since the goal was to specify mental structures, Titchener used the word “structuralism” to describe this branch of psychology (Atkinson, R.L. 1990, Introduction to Psychology. (10th Ed) New York, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, p767). Wundt’s structuralism was quickly abandoned because its objects, conscious experiences, are not easily subjected to controlled experimentation in the same way that behavior is.

Structuralism in linguistics

Ferdinand de Saussure was the originator of the 20th century reappearance of structuralism, and evidence of this can be found in Course in General Linguistics, written by Saussure’s colleagues after his death and based on student notes, where he focused not on the use of language (parole, or speech), but rather on the underlying system of language (langue) and called his theory semiology. This approach focused on examining how the elements of language related to each other in the present, that is, ‘synchronically’ rather than ‘diachronically’. Finally, he argued that linguistic signs were composed of two parts, a signifier (the sound pattern of a word, either in mental projection – as when we silently recite lines from a poem to ourselves – or in actual, physical realization as part of a speech act) and a signified (the concept or meaning of the word). This was quite different from previous approaches which focused on the relationship between words on the one hand and things in the world that they designate, on the other.

Saussure’s Course influenced many linguists between World War I and WWII. In America, for instance, Leonard Bloomfield developed his own version of structural linguistics, as did Louis Hjelmslev in Denmark and Alf Sommerfelt in Norway. In France Antoine Meillet and Émile Benveniste would continue Saussure’s program. Most importantly, however, members of the Prague School of linguistics such as Roman Jakobson and Nikolai Trubetzkoy conducted research that would be greatly influential.

The clearest and most important example of Prague School structuralism lies in phonemics. Rather than simply compile a list of which sounds occur in a language, the Prague School sought to examine how they were related. They determined that the inventory of sounds in a language could be analyzed in terms of a series of contrasts. Thus in English the sounds /p/ and /b/ represent distinct phonemes because there are cases (minimal pairs) where the contrast between the two is the only difference between two distinct words (e.g. ‘pat’ and ‘bat’). Analyzing sounds in terms of contrastive features also opens up comparative scope – it makes clear, for instance, that the difficulty Japanese speakers have differentiating /r/ and /l/ in English is because these sounds are not contrastive in Japanese. While this approach is now standard in linguistics, it was revolutionary at the time. Phonology would become the paradigmatic basis for structuralism in a number of different forms.

Structuralism in anthropology and sociology

See the main articles at structural anthropology and structural functionalism

According to structural theory in anthropology and social anthropology, meaning is produced and reproduced within a culture through various practices, phenomena and activities which serve as systems of signification. A structuralist studies activities as diverse as food preparation and serving rituals, religious rites, games, literary and non-literary texts, and other forms of entertainment to discover the deep structures by which meaning is produced and reproduced within a culture. For example, an early and prominent practitioner of structuralism, anthropologist and ethnographer Claude Lévi-Strauss in the 1950s, analyzed cultural phenomena including mythology, kinship (the Alliance theory and the incest taboo), and food preparation (see also structural anthropology). In addition to these studies, he produced more linguistically-focused writings where he applied Saussure’s distinction between langue and parole in his search for the fundamental mental structures of the human mind, arguing that the structures that form the “deep grammar” of society originate in the mind and operate in us unconsciously. Levi-Strauss was inspired by information theory and mathematics.

Another concept was borrowed from the Prague school of linguistics, where Roman Jakobson and others analysed sounds based on the presence or absence of certain features (such as voiceless vs. voiced). Levi-Strauss included this in his conceptualization of the universal structures of the mind, which he held to operate based on pairs of binary oppositions such as hot-cold, male-female, culture-nature, cooked-raw, or marriageable vs. tabooed women. A third influence came from Marcel Mauss, who had written on gift exchange systems. Based on Mauss, for instance, Lévi-Strauss argued that kinship systems are based on the exchange of women between groups (a position known as ‘alliance theory’) as opposed to the ‘descent’ based theory described by Edward Evans-Pritchard and Meyer Fortes.

While replacing Marcel Mauss at his Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes chair, Lévi-Strauss’ writing became widely popular in the 1960s and 1970s and gave rise to the term “structuralism” itself. In Britain authors such as Rodney Needham and Edmund Leach were highly influenced by structuralism. Authors such as Maurice Godelier and Emmanuel Terray combined Marxism with structural anthropology in France. In the United States, authors such as Marshall Sahlins and James Boon built on structuralism to provide their own analysis of human society. Structural anthropology fell out of favour in the early 1980s for a number of reasons. D’Andrade (1995) suggests that structuralism in anthropology was eventually abandoned because it made unverifiable assumptions about the universal structures of the human mind. Authors such as Eric Wolf argued that political economy and colonialism should be more at the forefront of anthropology. More generally, criticisms of structuralism by Pierre Bourdieu led to a concern with how cultural and social structures were changed by human agency and practice, a trend which Sherry Ortner has referred to as ‘practice theory’.

Some anthropological theorists, however, while finding considerable fault with Lévi-Strauss’s version of structuralism, did not turn away from a fundamental structural basis for human culture. The Biogenetic Structuralism group for instance argued that some kind of structural foundation for culture must exist because all humans inherit the same system of brain structures. They proposed a kind of Neuroanthropology which would lay the foundations for a more complete scientific accout of cultural similarity and variation by requiring an integration of cultural anthropology and neuroscience — a program also embraced by such theorists as Victor Turner.

Structuralism in the philosophy of mathematics

Structuralism in mathematics is the study of what structures (mathematical objects) are, and how the ontology of these structures should be understood. This is a growing philosophy within mathematics that is not without its share of critics.

Paul Benacerraf‘s “What Numbers Could Not Be” (1965) is a seminal paper on mathematical structuralism in an odd sort of way: it started the movement by the response it generated. Benacerraf addressed a notion in mathematics to treat mathematical statements at face value, in which case we are committed to an abstract, eternal realm of mathematical objects. Benacerraf’s dilemma is how we come to know these objects if we do not stand in causal relation to them. These objects are considered causally inert to the world. Another problem raised by Benacerraf is the multiple set theories that exist by which reduction of elementary number theory to sets is po
ssible. Deciding which set theory is true has not been feasible. Benacerraf concluded in 1965 that numbers are not objects, a conclusion responded to by Mark Balaguer with the introduction of full blooded Platonism (this is essentially the view that all logically possible mathematical objects do exist). With this full blooded Platonism, it does not matter which set-theoretic construction of mathematics is used, nor how we came to know of its existence, since any consistent mathematical theory necessarily exists and is a part of the greater platonic realm.

The answer to Benacerraf’s negative claims is how structuralism became a viable philosophical program within mathematics. The structuralist responds to these negative claims that the essence of mathematical objects is relations that the objects bear with the structure.

Important contributions to structuralism in mathematics have been made by Nicolas Bourbaki, and also by the great genetic epistemologist, Jean Piaget who, in collaboration with the mathematician, E.W. Beth, developed the notion of “mother structures” from which all mathematical formations are considered transformations.

Structuralism in literary theory and literary criticism

In literary theory structuralism is an approach to analyzing the narrative material by examining the underlying invariant structure. For example, a literary critic applying a structuralist literary theory might say that the authors of the West Side Story did not write anything “really” new, because their work has the same structure as Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. In both texts a girl and a boy fall in love (a “formula” with a symbolic operator between them would be “Boy + Girl”) despite the fact that they belong to two groups that hate each other (“Boy’s Group - Girl’s Group” or “Opposing forces”) and conflict is resolved by their death. The versatility of structuralism is such that a literary critic could make the same claim about a story of two friendly families (“Boy’s Family +LOVE Girl’s Family”) that arrange a marriage between their children despite the fact that the children hate each other (“Boy -LOVE Girl”) and then the children commit suicide to escape the arranged marriage; the justification is that the second story’s structure is an ‘inversion’ of the first story’s structure: the relationship between the values of love and the two pairs of parties involved have been reversed. Structuralistic literary criticism argues that the “novelty value of a literary text” can lie only in new structure, rather than in the specifics of character development and voice in which that structure is expressed. One branch of literary structuralism, like Freudianism, Marxism, and transformational grammar, posits both a deep and a surface structure. In Freudianism and Marxism the deep structure is a story, in Freud’s case the battle, ultimately, between the life and death instincts, and in Marx, the conflicts between classes that are rooted in the economic “base.” Literary structuralism often follows the lead of Vladimir Propp and Claude Levi-Strauss in seeking out basic deep elements in stories and myths, which are combined in various ways to produce the many versions of the ur-story or ur-myth. As in Freud and Marx, but in contrast to transformational grammar, these basic elements are meaning-bearing. There is considerable similarity between structural literary theory and Northrop Frye‘s archetypal criticism, which is also indebted to the anthropological study of myths. Some critics have also tried to apply the theory to individual works, but the effort to find unique structures in individual literary works runs counter to the structuralist program and has an affinity with New Criticism.

The other branch of literary structuralism is semiotics, and it is based on the work of Ferdinand de Saussure.

Structuralism after World War II

Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, existentialism like that practiced by Jean-Paul Sartre was the dominant mood. Structuralism surged to prominence in France after WWII and particularly in the 1960s. The initial popularity of structuralism in France led it to spread across the globe. The social sciences (in particular, sociology) were particularly influenced.

Structuralism rejected the concept of human freedom and choice and focused instead on the way that human behavior is determined by various structures. The most important initial work on this score was Claude Lévi-Strauss‘s 1949 volume Elementary Structures of Kinship. Lévi-Strauss had known Jakobson during their time together in New York during WWII and was influenced by both Jakobson’s structuralism as well as the American anthropological tradition. In Elementary Structures he examined kinship systems from a structural point of view and demonstrated how apparently different social organizations were in fact different permutations of a few basic kinship structures. In the late 1950s he published Structural Anthropology, a collection of essays outlining his program for structuralism.

By the early 1960s structuralism as a movement was coming into its own and some believed that it offered a single unified approach to human life that would embrace all disciplines. Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida focused on how structuralism could be applied to literature.

Blending Freud and De Saussure, the French (post)structuralist Jacques Lacan applied structuralism to psychoanalysis and, in a different way, Jean Piaget applied structuralism to the study of psychology.

Michel Foucault‘s book The Order of Things examined the history of science to study how structures of epistemology, or episteme, shaped how people imagined knowledge and knowing (though Foucault would later explicitly deny affiliation with the structuralist movement).

In much the same way, American historian of science Thomas Kuhn addressed the structural formations of science in his seminal work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions – its title alone evincing a stringent structuralist approach. Though less concerned with “episteme,” Kuhn nonetheless remarked at how coteries of scientists operated under and applied a standard praxis of ‘normal science,’ deviating from a standard ‘paradigm’ only in instances of irreconcilable anomalies that question a significant body of their work.

Blending Marx and structuralism another French theorist Louis Althusser introduced his own brand of structural social analysis, giving rise to “structural Marxism“. Other authors in France and abroad have since extended structural analysis to practically every discipline.

The definition of ‘structuralism’ also shifted as a result of its popularity. As its popularity as a movement waxed and waned, some authors considered themselves ‘structuralists’ only to later eschew the label.

The term has slightly different meanings in French and English. In the US, for instance, Derrida is considered the paradigm of post-structuralism while in France he is labeled a structuralist. Finally, some authors wrote in several different styles. Barthes, for instance, wrote some books which are clearly structuralist and others which clearly are not.

Reactions to structuralism

Today structuralism is less popular than approaches such as post-structuralism and deconstruction. There are many reasons for this. Structuralism has often been criticized for being ahistorical and for favoring deterministic structural forces over the ability of individual people to act. As the political turbulence of the 1960s and 1970s (and particularly the student uprisings of May 1968) began affecting academia, issues of power and political struggle moved to the center of people’s attention. In the 1980s, deconstruction and its emphasis on the fundamental ambiguity of language – rather than its crystalline logical structure – became popular. By the end of the century structuralism was seen as a historically important school of thought, but it was the movements it spawned, rather than structuralism itself, which commanded attention.


  • D’Andrade, R. 1995. The development of cognitive anthropology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Beth, E.W., and Piaget, J. (1966) Mathematical Epistemology and Psychology. Dordrecht: D. Reidel.
  • Francois Dosse. History of Structuralism (two volumes). University of Minnesota Press, 1998.
  • Kuper, A. 1988. The Invention of Primitive Society: Transformations of an Illusion. London: Routledge.
  • Laughlin, Charles D. and Eugene G. d’Aquili (1974) Biogenetic Structuralism. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Leach, E. 1954. Political Systems of Highland Burma. London: Bell.
  • Leach, E. 1966. Rethinking Anthropology. Northampton: Dickens.
  • Levi-Strauss, C. 1969. The Elementary Structures of Kinship. London: Eyre and Spottis-woode.


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