COMM 2110U Lecture Notes - Lecture 1: Semiotics, Cultural Studies

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1 Aug 2016
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Signs Taken for Wonders: Representations, Semiotics, and Cultural Studies
-We are going to learn about semiotics and representation, both of which are central to the
discipline of cultural studies
-Cultural studies have been one of the primary sites of production of theory – including theories
of communication over the past 3 decades
-Cultural studies is especially concerned with representation – its patterns and politics
Representation
-A representation is something that refers to another thing
-For example: words, images, traffic signs, flowers, music, medical symptoms – all of
these are assumed to refer to something else
-In other words, a representation is a sign that “points to” or “stands in for” something else
Intentional Theory of Representation
-A representation refers to the meaning intended by people who produce them
-For example: a painting means what the painter intended it to mean
-This theory is impressed upon students: in order to understanding a work, we need to
know what the author means
-But, a representation can often mean something other than what its author(s) or producer(s)
intended
-The meaning or interpretation of a representation is not something the author can completely
control
Reflective Theory of Representation
-A representation either reflects or distorts the meaning of what it refers to
-For example: we often say that the news media either reflects the truth about an event
or issue (“telling it like it is”), or otherwise distort it (“blowing it out of proportion”)
-But, the meaning of some representations is not easily measured in terms of their accuracy or
distortion of reality
-In short, it is not always easy to say whether a representation is true or false
Constructionist Theory of Representation
-The meaning of something is constructed by the ways in which it is represented in language
and culture
-Things don’t have a meaning before we represent them (that we could either reflect accurately
or distort)
-The constructionist approach builds upon the insights of semiotics
Semiotics
-Semiotics is the study of signs and language for the meanings they produce
-Semiotics conceives of the world in terms of the relationship between texts and readers -
everything is a “text” and everyone is a “reader”
-For example: according to semiotics, photographs, buildings, movies, clothes, music,
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