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Semiotics and Ideological Analysis

The following material references a 2013 lecture by Dr. George Petelin titled Refining the research question, at Griffith University’s Queensland College of Art in Brisbane, Queensland.


In previous weeks I have been elaborating quite a bit on my VAM lectures in these posts but seeing as I have fallen behind I will have to keep my class notes brief.

Week 8 saw the reintroduction of ideology and semiotics, which I have vague memories of wrestling with in undergrad.  As an introduction to the uninitiated and refresher for the rest of us, ideology is a large tree with many branches.  For our purposes we will be looking at ideology as it exists in the following:

  • Ideology as a systems of thought
  • Ideology as a set of values
  • Ideology as a body of ideas

Karl Marx suggested that Ideology is the superstructure of society, that ideologies are issued out of societal institutions, organisations and practices such as the practices of marriage.

Ideologies are taken as commonsense and advantage a particular social group, who will seek to maintain the status quo of such ideologies.  A false consciousness  is when society agrees with the way things are, even when it is bad for them.

Think about it.

As art practitioners we need to question everything, including ideology.  This includes conventions of the form, materials, places of exhibition, methods of distribution.

Semiotics is the study of words, a study of the power of the attachment of a word to an object.  Semioticians believe in signs.  A sign has two parts:

  • Signifier (the material, tangible, physical aspect)
  • Signified (The concept or meaning that the audience brings to the signifier)

Signifiers draw on myth through intertextuality in order to connote signified meaning.  Intertextuality is when we bring learned meaning from other texts.  When analysing art we first use a formal analysis to objectively describe the elements in the piece.  We can then look more deeply into the signs using a semiotic analysis.

In comics Scott McCloud referred to a process he called closure as the eye taking a small section of an image and subconsciously filling in the rest.  This is referred to in semiotics as a metonym, when a part stands for the whole.  Not to be confused with a metaphor (where one thing stands for something else).

Now for some new terms!

  • Jacques Derrida was a French Philosopher most known for his technique of semiotic analysis known as deconstruction, and his contribution to the fields of modern and postmodernist philosophy.  Deconstruction is a study of the inherent contradiction within all ideologies.  The idea is that all ideology contains its binary opposite; as such the means of an ideology’s opposition and destruction are contained within the ideology itself.

The society of the spectacle was published in 1967 by Guy Debord as a critical comment on society, modern life, media and architecture.  This was born out of techniques developed in the 1950’s by the Letterist International.   One of these techniques was détournement; the act of taking an existing image and changing it, thereby modifying the attached connotations.  This is a Dr Petelin suggested text and so it makes good sense to digest it asap.

That’s it for week 8, for now!