Scott on Semiotics

Scott on Semiotics

Scott Davis on Semiotics

From: Scott C. Davis
To: Detective Fictions

Hi All,
Since someone asked, and it seemed important, here’s my basic
run-down of icon index and symbol, and some notes about semiotics and

Semiotics is a system of signs and meanings; the study of signs. I
don’t mean like traffic lights (although those count too!), but all the
ways in which people communicate with each other, and the ways in which
people „read“ the world. Semiotics as a modern discipline (talk about signs
and meanings go way back in every culture) was formulated independently by
a Swiss linguist, Ferdinand de Saussure, and an American philosopher,
Charles Sanders Peirce. All the talk about signifiers and signifieds comes
from Saussure’s work, which discusses language as being composed of a
system of arbitrary differences (ie, there is no „natural“ relation between
a dog, the three letters together in a unit, and the sound [dawg]).

Peirce’s system was a little more complex (he has more than 100
individual sign categories: he was kind of obsessed, throughout his career,
with categories and classification), but basically, he defined a sign as
something which creates in the mind of another a new sign (an
interpretant), while referring to an object, the whole process of which is
organized against a system of meaning called the ground. Here’s how he puts

„A sign[, or representamen,] is something which stands to somebody for
something in some respect or capacity. It addresses somebody, that is,
creates in the mind of that person an equivalent sign, or perhaps a more
developed sign. That sign which it creates I call the interpretant of the
first sign. The sign stands for something, its object. It stands for that
object, not in all respects, but in reference to a sort of idea, which I
have sometimes called the ground….“ (CW II.135; ctd SS 14 brackets

Note the agency of the idea, it „stands,“ and „addresses,“ it „creates.“
What all this means is: at least two thinking entities are absolutely
necessary in any act of significant communication (ie, signs don’t merely
„have their own meaning,“ but have meanings which are worked out
communally); signs always „mean more than they say“; significant acts can
alter the entire system (I know thats a leap from what you have here, but
its true nevertheless).

Peirce also wanted to be able to distinguish a sign by its various
guises; he talks about the same sign in different ways, one of which is
when it refers to its direct object. Because his classifying mechanism
depends on a conceptual distinction between what he called „firstness,“
„secondness,“ and „thirdness,“ (also called „presence,“ „difference,“ and
„representation“) we have three types of signs as they refer to their
direct objects: icons, indices and symbols.

An icon resembles its object in 1) sharing certain properties of
the object (images, eg) and/or 2) duplicating (analogically) the organising
principles of the object (diagrams, eg) Ex: photos, painting, sculpture,
cinema, also graphs and algebraic equations. Icons are „the only means of
directly communicating an idea.“ (CW II.158)

An index points to, is „a sign of its object by virtue of being
connected with it“ (CW IV.359) Ex: weathervane, pointing hand, symptom.
„Because the indexical sign is understood to be connected to the real
object, it is capable of making that object conceptually present.“ (SS
19-20) Indices are necessary for syntagmatic relations, for situation in
time and place.

A symbol is an arbitrary, conventional and generally unmotivated
relation of sign and object. Ex: natural languages and notational systems.
Most representamens in practice are a combination of the three types;
Peirce considers those signs the richest which combine all three modes.

So, in Janet’s dream of the glass key, we can discuss the function
of the key as a sign in all three modes: the dream-key is an icon in its
representation as a key which unlocks the door to the house; it is an index
both to the dreamer’s desire to open the door (it’s in her hand, its why
people lock doors–to keep someone out), as well as to the fear that what
is behind the door might be harmful (in its glassy aspect, but also, that
that is the other reason why people lock doors–to keep someone or thing
in); it is a symbol (technically, for all these reasons and more) the
moment we start unpacking the image of the key in all its various modes (as
we did in lecture yesterday). If this seems a little confusing, it is. The
problem is that all meaning systems (I think) are basically conventional,
so that any iconic or indexical relation is overdetermined by the symbolism
of conventional usage (ie, a key can only unlock a door if we know that
that’s what that funny shaped little thing does).

Clues are something completely different, yet fundamentally the
same. A clue is a sign: it represents something to the reader (we readers,
the investigative „readers“ of the text) which means something other than
itself, and does so by reference to a ground (a system of organizing
meaning-making). The problem is that a clue can only be a clue if we know
what it is that we are looking for. So, any sign _can_be_ a clue, but we
only _know_ if it is a clue in retrospect. How do we get from one to the
other? How do we know what to look for in order to make sense of what we
see or read?

Peirce had an idea about this, which he called „abduction.“
„Abduction…is the creative act of making up explanatory hypotheses.“
(Davis 22) In the Maltese Falcon, for example, Spade „makes up“ two
separate narratives about the murder of Miles Archer, neither of which can
be completely accepted as strictly factual, and both of which can be
accepted as narratively plausible (ie, they tell the story in a way which
makes sense of the events). So, we are left kind of high and dry if we want
to critique the story that’s told to us, unless we can back off of the
thing and talk about the construction of narrative as such, how a
successful narrative can be made to work. And this has to do with the
mastery of discourse: the only way Spade can succeed (can get off the hook)
is to successfully locate himself in that position (which due to certain
accidents of birth and culture, he can do far easier than, say, Harriet
Vane, or Easy Rawlins).

This was also the problem on which The Long Goodbye dwelt for
something like 400 pages: the mystery here is not who killed so and so, but
how the narrator can work story-telling itself to make some sense of a
strange and uncanny landscape (the cartography — political and
geographical — of LA, the relations between men, and between men and
women, the relation of sign-systems like language and semiotics to
narrativity as such). The point I’m taking a long time to get around to is
that even as the „mystery“ has its narrative uses (it can allegorize
certain human dynamics, for example), there are always other stories being
told, and other stories that can be told. Our job as readers is to locate
the one, and our job as writers is to develop the other.

I hope this helps a little. For more technical discussions (some of
which are invaluable), see Silverman, de Lauretis (especially the last two
essays), and Jackson (especially Ch. 1). You should also check out the
„theory“ and „semiotics“ sections of Earl’s web-page, which have a lot more
detailed work, and a lot more specific examples, than do I here. I’m also
putting together a „narrative“ of the class through to this week, which I
hope to post to my section over the weekend.

Hope you have a beautiful long weekend, s.


Works Cited:

  • Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye (New York: Vintage, 1992 [1953])
  • William H. Davis, Peirce’s Epistemology (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1972)
  • Teresa de Lauretis, Alice Doesn’t (Bloomington: University of Indiana
  • Press, 1984)
  • Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon (New York: Vintage, 1992 [1929])
  • The Glass Key (New York: Vintage, 1989 [1931])
  • Earl Jackson, Jr., Strategies of Deviance (Bloomington: University of
  • Indiana Press, 1995) Theories of Representation and Difference. Teresa de Lauretis, General Editor
  • Walter Mosley, Devil in a Blue Dress (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990)
  • Charles Sanders Peirce, Collected Works [CW] (Bloomington: University of
  • Indiana Press, 1994-6)
  • Dorothy L. Sayers,Gaudy Night (New York: Harper, 1995 [1936])
  • Kaja Silverman, The Subject of Semiotics [SS] (New York: Oxford University
  • Press, 1983)

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