Semiotics: The How Tos

1. See the text as a unit. Read the text as linear culmination.

2. By process of elimination (that of selecting what it is not) assign a definition or mental image to word(s).

3. Sound out the words that create the poem. Notice that the “Rrr” in “Red” is unrelated to the blush hue. Can you find other examples where this theory true? (If you’ve identified the poem in its entirety, you’re on the right track.)

4. Progress through the poem and continue to locate signifiers and their signified, which together form a sign. Recall that signifiers can precede the signified, or vice versa.

5. Consider each word for what it is not. Can you locate rhetorical cues for help?

6. Read through the poem again.

7. Understand the poem based on those terms and ideas you have not discovered, based on that which is not written.

8. Optional: Identify the text as a specific genre is this literature (which will be the result of conducting a process of elimination of what it  is not). Once you recognize it a poem, use that as a soundboard for comparison with other texts in its genre.

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 65:
Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea,
But sad mortality o’er-sways their power,
How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?
O, how shall summer’s honey breath hold out
Against the wreckful siege of battering days,
When rocks impregnable are not so stout,
Nor gates of steel so strong, but Time decays?
O fearful meditation! where, alack,
Shall Time’s best jewel from Time’s chest lie hid?
Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back?
Or who his spoil of beauty can forbid?
O, none, unless this miracle have might,
That in black ink my love may still shine bright.
(http://www.shakespeare-online.com/sonnets/65.html)

In reading the first line of Sonnet 65, the Semiotician concludes that each word can not be the same as those to the left or to the right of it, nor any other word in existence.  By process of elimination, he/she defines each word as something different than all others, although it’s actual mental image has nothing to do with the chain of letters issued to represent it.  The Semotician identifies this “random” beading of letters as the signifier of the mental image, which is the signified. These are signs. The Semiotician progresses through the entire poem, keeping in mind previously identified signs as means for further comparison and, consequently, identification of other signs.  After all he/she was able to define has been, the Semotician reads through the poem again, allowing for a linear “teamwork” flow of the words (those that have been identified based on what they are not) to aid in his/her conclusion of what the words he/she was till then unable to identify might mentally look like.  All these words together combine to let the Semotician know what the poem does not mean, and from she/he can decipher what it does.

Semiotic reading of Sonnet 65:

“Brass” is not “stone,” and “stone” not “brass,” and neither of the two mentally look like any other word in the poem, or any other word at large.  “Brass” is the signifier for the signified mental image of metal alloy, which the Semiotician deciphered based on the the word’s irrelation to a mental image of mineral matter which is “stone,” a mental image of a body of water which is “sea,” or a mental image of a bristled cleaner of the jaw’s bony protrusions which is “toothbrush,” etc.  Note, though,  any associated correlation between the mental image of metal alloy and b-r-a-s-s is socially-constructed.

After completing the entirety of the poem in this way, the Semotician concluded that Sonnet 65 speaks about the destroyer, Time (“Time” being the signifier of the signified, limited period) who ravages “brass, “stone,” etc.  These words are but unions of letters that represent everything they are not (as mentioned previously).  Nothing is immortal.  Not “beauty” or love — which the Semotician recognized based on their irrelatedness to “brass, “stone,” etc. — unless b-l-a-c-k i-n-k rescues them.  Upon reading these two words, recognizing them as nothing  other than themselves, via process of elimination, the Semotician understood that they signify the dark colored fluid used for writing.  Then, upon reading the poem again as a linear progression and understanding the poem for what is not written, the Semotician concluded that the poet hopes to save love and beauty from the destroyer, Time, by writing this poem.

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51 Responses to “Semiotics: The How Tos”

  1.   Kevin L. Ferguson Says:

    Thorough job! I like that you emphasize the “linear” nature of interpretation: that’s the syntagmatic axis and that’s something that Freud had to have had on his mind when he described how dreams establish relationships. Dreams can’t do the story/plot thing, so there has to be another technique of placement in order to create meaning.

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