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Research Report by Matt Billings

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Research Report: Understanding Vision through Semiotics


By Matt Billings, Borges: An Exploration in Modeling



Daniel Chandler’s work “Semiotics for Beginners” documents a history of structuralist and linguist analysis of the components of interpreting and creating text – text referring to visual, verbal, and literature-based readings. Chandler begins by explaining that the homosapien species, in particular, desires a meaningful existence. Meaning is found through the interpretation of signs found in reality. These signs are dependent on signifiers and the signified. The values of signs and the signified are determined by individual experience through social and political circumstances. The essay exemplifies the necessity for a perceptual norm in order to derive sought after meaning.




Daniel Chandler initially created “Semiotics for Beginners” in 1994 to prepare for a Media Education course he was teaching at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth. His purpose was to greater his personal understanding of semiotics through create a less difficult documentation of the topic than other works which he had found frustratingly impossible to understand. The text was been adapted from its original form into an online website, thus allowing Chandler to continue to develop his ideas from the initial concepts conveyed in his 1994 work. Through a preface given on the website, he ensures that he is unable to cover all subjects regarding semiotics and therefore concentrates solely on “human semiosis” (“Introduction”). While remaining close to the revisable nature of hyptertext, Chandler also has a published version of the current on-line text because the hypertext “doesn’t stand still long enough to get to know it” (“Introduction”).


Semiotics can be used to analyze a number of mediums including art and literature. Chandler acknowledges that the study is often utilized to study text – text being defines as a message, recorded in some manner, so that it is “physically independent of its sender of receiver” (“Signs”). The first concept that Chandler dissects is the notion of signs. As an advanced species, we desire meaning, and therefore society interprets the surrounding elements of existence as a sign that signifies a more comprehensive meaning. The linguist Saussure proposed a two-part model of a sign’s composition: a ‘signifier’ and the ‘signified.’ A signifier is “the form which the sign takes” while the signified is “the concept [the sign] represents” (“Signs”). A sign must possess both of these qualities although, while society today has adopted the signifier as a material object, Saussure considered both to be psychological entities. In turn, a sign’s value is dependent on its relation to other signs. Because of this, a signifier and the signified are not necessarily directly related, but they could potentially have an arbitrary relationship. Other theorists have understood the reason for their arbitrary relationship as dependent on individual human experience.


Chandler develops his claim that semiotics focuses on textual analysis by then looking at structural concerns of semiotics. Saussure’s definition of signs in relation to text instigates a discussion of syntagmatic and paradigmatic variability between signifiers. The study of syntagms analyzes the combination of words while the study of paradigms analyzes the specific selection of words. Susan Spiggle provides an example of syntagms in paradigms in a more applicable manner to real-life experience. When a girl chooses the clothes she plans on wearing throughout the day, she selects a sign from three paradigms – upper body clothes, lower body clothes, and footwear. Each individual paradigm contains a set of possible pieces that can be worn which share a similar attribute, for example, clothe the upper body. The combination is selected through rules “(i.e., tee-shirts go with sandals, not high heels)” (“Paradigms and Syntagms”). Therefore the entire ensemble of chosen clothes is the syntagm.


A sign’s value is determined by both syntagms and paradigms because these elements “are the structural forms through which signs are organized into codes” (“Codes”). The linguist structuralist, Roman Jakobson, developed Saussure’s initial illustration of codes to explain that deriving meaning from sign “requires familiarity with appropriate sets of conventions” (“Codes”). In relation to film, people do not view life in a two-dimensional sequence of frames. When watching a film or viewing a photograph, one must use codes of size and detail to understand a three-dimensional distance in a two-dimensional portrayal of reality.


The process of creating and interpreting a text is referred to as encoding and decoding respectively. In regard to previously discussed notions, the process of decoding is dependent on relevant codes, which are derived from context and experience. When digesting literature, Stuart Hall proposes three interpretive positions for the reader of a text. Dominant reading is produced when the reader shares and fully accepts the text and the author’s codes. Oppositional reading takes place when a reader’s experience and social situation forces a direct opposition to the codes understood from the author’s work. Finally, negotiated reading falls between the two extremes when the reader partly relates to the codes illustrated in a work. Through the understanding of these three modes of reading, Hall greater illustrates the necessity of individual perception and experience in determining the signified from the signifier.



In the creation of a cinematic representation of the Borges’ story “Of Exactitude in Science” we plan on adapting each individual word used by Borges into a camera angle, movement, or other stylistic element. Through utilizing Chandler’s essay, the importance of semiotics in relation to both text and visual understanding becomes apparent. In a film world that has been constructed for the simple understanding of what is being shown on-screen, there are specific signs utilized by directors in order to instigate specific emotional reactions from viewers. Chandler discusses where these reactions come from by analyzing a society’s development of social and cultural codes and the perceptual dependency that results. Understanding codes of space and distance in order to properly represent certain diction and the properties of speech will play a large role in the creation of the film.


He slightly complicates the notion of a perceptual norm by discusses the variability of experience and its relation to semiotics. For example, a person from a culture that contrasts drastically with beliefs and ideas found in traditional Western culture would have a completely different emotional experience when viewing an American film and vice-versa. Therefore, in the adaptation of the Borges story, it is important to acknowledge the differences that are derived from cultural backgrounds.


Resources for Further Study:



Borges, Jorge L. "Of Exactitude in Science." Max Planck Institute for Biological


Cybernetics. 20 Feb. 2008



Chandler, Daniel. "Codes." Semiotics for Beginners. 16 Feb. 2008




Chandler, Daniel. "Encoding/Decoding." Semiotics for Beginners. 16 Feb. 2008




Chandler, Daniel. "Introduction." Semiotics for Beginners. 16 Feb. 2008




Chandler, Daniel. "Paradigms and Syntagms." Semiotics for Beginners. 16 Feb. 2008




Chandler, Daniel. "Semiotics for Beginners." Semiotics for Beginners. 16 Feb. 2008




Chandler, Daniel. "Signs." Semiotics for Beginners. 16 Feb. 2008




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