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Professor Theo Van Leeuwen visited the RCA this week in the context of a new seminar series in the School of Communication intended to give research students exposure to a broad range of ideas in arts and humanities research. Van Leeuwen is considered one of the leading theorists in, and originators of, the field of social semiotics.

He started with a historical overview of semiotics from its roots in French structuralist philosophy and social science. This took in Levi-Strauss and De Saussure and highlighted how they specifically and deliberately avoided addressing how signs and signifiers develop through social use. They considered the sign to be completely separate from its interpretation or functional use.  He then drew the line from French semiotics to the post-structuralist critique  of Barthes and the Prague school of Roman Jacobson. Barthes and Jacobson both emphasised the meta level implications of semiological resources. Barthes, for example, analysed wrestling as semiotic entity rather than phonemes, grammar, or words.

The system of semiological signs is fluid and under constant evolution, with new languages emerging and transforming. These were described as a set of semiological resources i.e. words and other grammatical structures (including the visual) used to convey qualities such as, certainty, security, or fear. This opened up an argument about how wide the field has become with semiological analysis of toys, music, software, and food now fully accepted as valid subjects for research. Van Leeuwen has carried out research into toys and he gave the specific example of how Barbie Doll’s hands are not designed for holding or gripping anything while Action Man’s hands are fully formed for the purpose. The professionalisation of semiotic study was highlighted as an issue and Van Leeuwen gave the example of David Byrne’s work about Powerpoint or the tacit knowledge held by doctors as examples of situated or non-academic semiotic expertise.

This brought the discussion around to the social aspect of semiotics. The key point is that meanings are not fixed in objects or signifiers in the way that De Saussure suggested but that meaning is made (or constructed) in use. This shifts semiological study to a necessary exploration of context; social and physical. The natural extension of this is multi-modality. Van Leeuwen pointed out that it is no longer possible to talk about text and image relations in a time of synthesised cultural experiences that feature; music, animation, taste, film, and touch. He claimed Malinowski as an important semiotician, deeply engaged with his subject context yet carrying out systematic research. Finally, he spoke about a new frontier of semiotics in software studies and how they represent ‘the articulatory aspect of sign production’ i.e. interactions.

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