There was one reading that particularly interested me this week: Sean Hall’s This Means This, This Means That: A User’s Guide to Semiotics. I have to admit, the term semiotics is one that just doesn’t seem to linger very long in my mind. In the past six years as an undergraduate, then a graduate student, I have used and known this term every semester. Yet every semester I forget it again. After reading This Means This, This Means That, however, I think the nuances of semiotics might actually stick this time.
An example of this is in Chapter Two, “Ways of Meaning,” in which Hall defines and illustrates terms such as simile, metaphor, synecdoche, and metonym. The former two terms are common and easy to remember. The latter, however, are terms I haven’t heard since a class called “Readings in Non-Western Literature” in my freshman year of college. Since it was a literature class, the professor focused on the textual examples of these terms, such as “wheels” representing a car (synecdoche) and using the term “White House” in place of “the President.”
It amazes me the way we see objects every day and apply meaning to them based on our own experiences, expectations, and perceptions. Hall states that “there are numerous devices that we can employ to produce meanings of a non-literal kind” (34). We use these devices daily without thinking about them, or knowing we are doing it. For example, my four year old niece drew me a picture the other day that looked something like this:
When I asked her what it was a picture of, her answer was something like this: “A party! And you are there, and mommy, and me, and Mimi, and there’s a boat, and the beach, and Nahla and Oliver (the dogs) running after Buffy (the cat).” Well, I was not aware that all of THAT was going on what I perceived to be a big scribble. It’s almost sad to think that one day she will learn the “conventions of representation” (52), and be forced to draw specific objects to get her idea across. Or, she could become a successful artist with her abstract drawings.
That being said, I was a bit disappointed with the chapter, “Textual Structure.” Although Hall promises in the beginning of the chapter to explore textual semiotics, his explanations and examples are not as clear as those involving images. For example, Hall asks, “Which text is telling the truth?” and provides an image of two seemingly identical glasses, one labeled “Poison” and the other “Holy Water.”
Rather than immediately give the reader suggestions or solutions for this question, he first delves into different scenarios in which words and text do or do not interact. It isn’t until the end of the explanation that he gives a clear statement: “Pieces of text, then, can simplify, complicate, elaborate, amplify… or help to define different types of meanings when they interact with images and objects” (98). This way of organizing his explanations threw me, especially after his more direct descriptions in the more visually-based chapters.
In the chapter, “Conceptual Structures,” Hall confuses me again. In his description/explanation of the image of the traffic light on page 69, he doesn’t, to me, seem to answer his own question fully. When I saw this image (which depicts a traffic light “upside-down”–green, yellow, red, rather than red, yellow, green), I expected him to confront the placement of the colors. I imagined that he would claim it doesn’t matter in which order the colors are placed. Instead, he discusses the colors chosen. Yes, it is important to note that the colors chosen to me go, caution, and stop have been chosen and accepted by our culture even though other colors could do the same thing. However, I wonder: why did Hall change the order of the colors if he didn’t intend to discuss their order? Does it matter where the colors are located?
Despite my (few) objections to the way Hall handles some of his topics, I definitely enjoyed this reading. In it, Hall describes many of the same ideas Denis Wood explores, yet in a much more accessible, visual way. In my opinion, if you’re going to discuss visual semiotics, the book itself needs to have a level of visual appeal itself.