Book Review: Semiotics: The Basics

Semiotics:  The Basics, by Daniel Chandler

As someone who is deeply interested in communication, I found this book to be deeply interesting, largely because the author managed to (perhaps unintentionally) reveal how it is that a society that takes communication so deadly seriously as our own can be so consistently bad at it.  This has always greatly puzzled me that the interest in and supposed knowledge of communication and how it worked should be so disconnected from its practical importance, and this book did a good job in explaining how it came to be.  By and large, the author expresses an understanding of semiotics that tends to view it as both something with a very long set of traditions but a very short formal existence, and a great deal of arguments over what aspects of communication are in existence and whether or not the external reality has any importance in understanding communications.  Given this sort of debating and the lack of consistency between a great deal of the theorizing about technology that exists and the actual communication that happens, to say nothing of the actual existence that we live, it makes sense that a field that struggles to grasp reality would fail to have a practical benefit in terms of mastering communication.

This book is a bit more than 200 pages and is divided into seven chapters.  The author begins with a list of illustrations, preface, and acknowledgments.  After that there is an introduction that provides definitions and an answer to the question of why one would want to study semiotics.   After that the author discusses various models of the sign, focusing on the Saussurean and Piercean models and discussing modes of understanding signs that are not types because more than one can simultaneously apply (1).  After that the author discusses the troublesome relationship in semoitics between signs and things (2) as well as the way that structures in communication are analyzed in semiotics (3).  There is a chapter on how the ironic reader challenges the literal (4) and seeks to understand the variety of codes that are used in various genres (5).  After that there are chapters on textual interactions and positions of reading (6) as well as the question of prospect and retrospect (7), after which the book ends with an appendix that features key figures and schools of semiotics as well as suggestions for further reading, and a glossary, bibliography, and index.

In few fields to the extent of semiotics is there such a wide gulf between the sort of patting oneself on the back that occurs by credentialed members of the field and the actual understanding of one’s chosen field that would be exhibited by understanding and being able to apply that understanding regarding communication.  There are so many areas where semiotics as a field fails to provide genuine insight about communication, such as when textual criticism is at such a primitive level as exists, and when the multi-layered nature of many texts is so often disregarded, not when the perspective of readers (many of whom are not very knowledgeable or proficient in the task) is privileged over the people who actually created the texts in the first place, and where even the existence of an external reality that influences communication and how it is to be evaluated is considered to be problematic.  And so it is that this book ends up providing the basics about semiotics and a reminder why it is that we should all strive to be better at communicating than those who fancy themselves to be expert in the task of understanding signs and how they are to be interpreted.  For few fields have so many blind guides as does semiotics, and in our world full of woebegone experts, that is saying something truly impressive.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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