Semiotics, structuralism, and beyond
Semiotics (or as some prefer, semiology) refers to the study of signs-of signification-of how material things (words, images, sounds) make meanings (mental understandings). While some of this chapter may seem rather abstract and theoretical, concepts from semiotics form the basic building blocks of film and television analysis. Semiotics seeks to explain and explore what happens when we look at a word or image or hear a certain sound, and how that word or image or sound creates meaning. Semiotics was originally a theory of how language works, and is thus part of linguistics or the study of language, but over the course of the twentieth century various theorists have sought to apply its concepts to the study of other cultural artifacts, including film and television. Some semiotic concepts work perfectly well when applied to film and television, while others do not. Semiotics also gives rise to structuralism, another broad interdisciplinary term that refers to the ways various human systems or cultural networks (literally social and ideological structures) are organized to create meaning. As we will discover in this and subsequent chapters, models of analysis such as auteur or genre theory gain further sophistication when the principles of semiotics and structuralism are applied to them. Finally, structuralist approaches to culture have themselves been critiqued as being too essentialist and ahistorical; thinking that moves beyond structuralism is generally called poststructuralism. As this chapter explores, while structuralist theories tend to discover and uphold a structure or framework as the explanatory basis of meaning, poststructuralist theories are often concerned with how those structures fail to create unified meanings. Poststructuralists focus on the “wiggle room” within structures, and try to create more precise and nuanced analyses of complex cultural phenomena like films and TV shows, and especially how they are understood within varying social, industrial, and historical contexts.