Semiotics can help to denaturalize theoretical assumptions in academia just as in everyday life; it can thus raise new theoretical issues (Culler 1985, 102; Douglas 1982, 199). Whilst this means that many scholars who encounter semiotics find it unsettling, others find it exciting. Semiotic techniques 'in which the analogy of language as a system is extended to culture as a whole' can be seen as representing 'a substantial break from the positivist and empirical traditions which had limited much previous cultural theory' (Franklin et al. 1996, 263). Robert Hodge and Gunther Kress argue that unlike many academic disciplines, 'semiotics offers the promise of a systematic, comprehensive and coherent study of communications phenomena as a whole, not just instances of it' (Hodge & Kress 1988, 1). Semiotics provides us with a potentially unifying conceptual framework and a set of methods and terms for use across the full range of signifying practices, which include gesture, posture, dress, writing, speech, photography, film, television and radio. Semiotics may not itself be a discipline but it is at least a focus of enquiry, with a central concern for meaning-making practices which conventional academic disciplines treat as peripheral. As David Sless notes, 'we consult linguists to find out about language, art historians or critics to find out about paintings, and anthropologists to find out how people in different societies signal to each other through gesture, dress or decoration. But if we want to know what all these different things have in common then we need to find someone with a semiotic point of view, a vantage point from which to survey our world' (Sless 1986, 1). David Mick suggests, for instance, that 'no discipline concerns itself with representation as strictly as semiotics does' (Mick 1988, 20; my emphasis). Semiotics foregrounds and problematizes the process of representation.
Traditional structural semiotics was primarily applied to textual analysis but it is misleading to identify contemporary semiotics with structuralism. The turn to social semiotics has been reflected in an increasing concern with the role of the reader. In either form, semiotics is invaluable if we wish to look beyond the manifest content of texts. Structuralist semiotics seeks to look behind or beneath the surface of the observed in order to discover the underlying organization of phenomena. The more obvious the structural organization of a text or code may seem to be, the more difficult it may be to see beyond such surface features (Langholz Leymore 1975, 9). Searching for what is 'hidden' beneath the 'obvious' can lead to fruitful insights. Semiotics is also well adapted to exploring connotative meanings. Social semiotics alerts us to how the same text may generate different meanings for different readers.
Semiotics can also help us to realise that whatever assertions seem to us to be 'obvious', 'natural', universal, given, permanent and incontrovertible are generated by the ways in which sign systems operate in our discourse communities. Art historian Keith Mosley comments that:
Whereas both 'common-sense' and positivist realism insist that reality is independent of the signs which refer to it, semiotics emphasizes the role of sign systems in the construction of reality. Although things may exist independently of signs we know them only through the mediation of signs. We see only what our sign systems allow us to see.
Whilst Saussurean semioticians have sometimes been criticized for seeking to impose verbal language as a model on media which are non-verbal or not solely or primarily verbal, the virtue of adopting a linguistic model lies in treating all signs as being to some extent arbitrary and conventional - thus fostering an awareness of the ideological forces that seek to naturalize signs (Culler 1985, 92). Semioticians argue that signs are related to their signifieds by social conventions which we learn. We become so used to such conventions in our use of various media that they seem 'natural', and it can be difficult for us to realize the conventional nature of such relationships. When we take these relationships for granted we treat the signified as unmediated or 'transparent', as when we interpret television or photography as 'a window on the world'. Semiotics demonstrates that the 'transparency' of the 'medium' is illusory.
Semiotics can help to make us aware of what we take for granted in representing the world, reminding us that we are always dealing with signs, not with an unmediated objective reality, and that sign systems are involved in the construction of meaning. This is an ideological issue, since, as Victor Burgin notes, 'an ideology is the sum of taken-for-granted realities of everyday life' (Burgin 1982a, 46). Valentin Voloshinov declared: 'Whenever a sign is present, ideology is present too' (Voloshinov 1973, 10). There are no ideologically 'neutral' sign systems: signs function to persuade as well as to refer. Sign systems help to naturalize and reinforce particular framings of 'the way things are', although the operation of ideology in signifying practices is typically masked. Consequently, semiotic analysis always involves ideological analysis. If signs do not merely reflect reality but are involved in its construction then those who control the sign systems control the construction of reality. However, 'commonsense' involves incoherences, ambiguities, inconsistencies, contradictions, omissions, gaps and silences which offer leverage points for potential social change. The role of ideology is to suppress these in the interests of dominant groups. Consequently, reality construction occurs on 'sites of struggle'. As John Hartley comments, 'contending social forces seek to "fix" the meaning-potential of each sign with an evaluative accent conducive to their particular interests' and at the same time try to present evaluative differences as differences in fact (Hartley 1982, 23, 24). For Roland Barthes various codes contribute to reproducing bourgeois ideology, making it seem natural, proper and inevitable. One need not be a Marxist to appreciate that it can be liberating to become aware of whose view of reality is being privileged in the process. Many semioticians see their primary task as being to denaturalize signs, texts and codes. Semiotics can thus show ideology at work and demonstrate that 'reality' can be challenged.
Whilst processes of mediation tend to retreat to transparency in our routine everyday practices, adopting a semiotic approach can help us to attend to what Catherine Belsey calls 'the construction of the process of signification' in analysing specific texts (Belsey 1980, 47). This has made it a particularly attractive approach for media educators. In the study of the mass media, semiotic approaches can draw our attention to such taken-for-granted practices as the classic Hollywood convention of 'invisible editing' which is still the dominant editing style in popular cinema and television. Semiotic treatments can make us aware that this is a manipulative convention which we have learned to accept as 'natural' in film and television. More broadly, Pierre Guiraud argued that 'it is doubtless one of the main tasks of semiology to establish the existence of systems in apparently a-systematic modes of signification' (Guiraud 1975, 30). In relation to the mass media, semiotics has made distinctive theoretical contributions. In association with psychoanalysis, semiotics also introduced the theory of 'the positioning of the subject' (the spectator) in relation to the filmic text. Whilst this structuralist stance may have reinforced the myth of the irresistibility of media influence, the emphasis of social semioticians on diversity of interpretation (within social parameters) has countered the earlier tendency to equate 'content' with meaning and to translate this directly to 'media effects'.
As an approach to communication which focuses on meaning and interpretation, semiotics challenges the reductive transmission model which equates meaning with 'message' (or content). Signs do not just 'convey' meanings, but constitute a medium in which meanings are constructed. Semiotics helps us to realise that meaning is not passively absorbed but arises only in the active process of interpretation. In relation to printed advertisements, William Leiss and his colleagues note:
Much the same could be said of texts in other genres and media. The meanings generated by a single sign are multiple. Semiotics highlights 'the infinite richness of interpretation which... signs are open to' (Sturrock 1986, 101). Voloshinov referred to the multi-accentuality of the sign - the potential for diverse interpretations of the same sign according to particular social and historical contexts (Voloshinov 1973, 23).
The romantic mythology of individual creativity and of the 'originality' of 'the author' (e.g. the auteur in film) has been undermined by various strands in semiotics: by the structuralist emphasis on the primacy of the semiotic system and of ourselves as produced by language; by the social semiotic emphasis on the role of the interpreters of a text; and by the post-structuralist semiotic notion of intertextuality (highlighting what texts owe to other texts). Individuals are not unconstrained in their construction of meanings. As Stuart Hall puts it, our 'systems of signs... speak us as much as we speak in and through them' (Hall 1977, 328). 'Common-sense' suggests that 'I' am a unique individual with a stable, unified identity and ideas of my own. Semiotics can help us to realise that such notions are created and maintained by our engagement with sign systems: our sense of identity is established through signs. We derive a sense of 'self' from drawing upon conventional, pre-existing repertoires of signs and codes which we did not ourselves create. We are thus the subjects of our sign systems rather than being simply instrumental 'users' who are fully in control of them. Whilst we are not determined by semiotic processes we are shaped by them far more than we realise. Pierre Guiraud goes further: 'Man [sic] is the vehicle and the substance of the sign, he is both the signifier and the signified; in fact, he is a sign and therefore a convention' (Guiraud 1975, 83). The postmodernist notion of fragmented and shifting identities may provide a useful corrective to the myth of the unified self. But unlike those postmodernist stances which simply celebrate radical relativism, semiotics can help us to focus on how we make sense of ourselves, whilst social semiotics anchors us to the study of situated practices in the construction of identities and the part that our engagement with sign systems plays in such processes. Justin Lewis notes that 'we are part of a prearranged semiological world. From the cradle to the grave, we are encouraged by the shape of our environment to engage with the world of signifiers in particular ways' (Lewis 1991, 30).
Guy Cook argues that 'forty years ago, the method was a revolutionary one, and justly captured the intellectual imagination, not only for the added complexity it could bring to analysis but also for its political and philosophical implications. Its visions of cultures and cultural artefacts, no matter how superficially different, as fundamentally similar was a powerful weapon against racism and cultural chauvinism, and held out hope of the discovery of abstract structures universal in human culture' (Cook 1992, 70-71). Feminist theorists note that structuralist semiotics has been important for feminists as a tool for critiques of reductionism and essentialism and has 'facilitated the analysis of contradictory meanings and identities' (Franklin et al. 1996, 263). Semiotics has sought to study cultural artifacts and practices of whatever kind on the basis of unified principles, at its best bringing some coherence to media and cultural studies. Whilst semiotic analysis has been widely applied to the literary, artistic and musical canon, it has been applied to the 'decoding' of a wide variety of popular cultural phenomena. It has thus helped to stimulate the serious study of popular culture.
Anthony Wilden has observed that 'all language is communication but very little communication is language' (Wilden 1987, 137). In an increasingly visual age, an important contribution of semiotics from Roland Barthes onwards has been a concern with imagistic as well as linguistic signs, particularly in the context of advertising, photography and audio-visual media. Semiotics may encourage us not to dismiss a particular medium as of less worth than another: literary and film critics often regard television as of less worth than prose fiction or 'artistic' film. To Úlitist literary critics, of course, this would be a weakness of semiotics. Potentially, semiotics could help us to realize differences as well as similarities between various media. It could help us to avoid the routine privileging of one semiotic mode over another, such as the spoken over the written or the verbal over the non-verbal. We need to recognize, as Gunther Kress and Theo van Leeuwen note, that 'different semiotic modes - the visual, the verbal, the gestural... have their potentialities, and their limitations' (Kress & van Leeuwen 1996, 31). Such a realization could lead to the recognition of the importance of new literacies in a changing semiotic ecology. At present, 'with regard to images, most people in most societies are mostly confined to the role of spectator of other people's productions' (Messaris 1994, 121). Most people feel unable to draw or paint, and even amongst those who own video-cameras not everyone knows how to make effective use of them. This is a legacy of an educational system which still focuses almost exclusively on the acquisition of one kind of symbolic literacy (that of verbal language) at the expense of most other semiotic modes (in particular the iconic mode). This institutional bias disempowers people not only by excluding many from engaging in those representational practices which are not purely linguistic but by handicapping them as critical readers of the majority of texts to which they are routinely exposed throughout their lives. A working understanding of key concepts in semiotics - including their practical application - can be seen as essential for everyone who wants to understand the complex and dynamic communication ecologies within which we live. Those who cannot understand such environments are in the greatest danger of being manipulated by those who can. For Peirce, 'the universe... is perfused with signs, if it is not composed exclusively of signs' (Peirce 1931-58, 5.449n). There is no escape from signs. As Bill Nichols puts it, 'As long as signs are produced, we will be obliged to understand them. This is a matter of nothing less than survival' (Nichols 1981, 8).