Squaring the Circle (Introduction to Semiotics Part 8)

Jun 13 2012

Western thought has always sought to categorise objects as either one thing or another (e.g., Aristotle, Descartes, Kierkegaard) and the concept of binary opposition is central to much of semiotic theory (read the previous article for more on this). However, Eastern philosophers have always realised that the world is not as simple as that, and storytellers and film directors have often taken their lead.

Many of the most interesting films revolve around ‘undecideables’ (in the words of Derrida) such as zombies. This is also where many of the best new ideas come from.

A central interest in a zombie film is whether the zombie(s) are alive or dead, and how we can resolve this paradox. Similarly, in my favourite film Bladerunner, the stories revolves around the differences between man and machine (robot), and where the ‘replicants’ (robots) in the film fall in this dimension. Often the replicants appear ‘more human than human’ (or at least more human than the ‘humans’ in the story), and this is coincidentally the motto of the Tyrell Coropration in the story who designed the replicants. A more recent example is ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’, where the opposition between man and animal (ape) is explored.

A.J. Greimas and others developed the ‘semiotic square’ as one way to explore such undecideable oppositions. Take the opposition of masculine versus feminine. We can draw these as a connecting ‘line’ and then project a square from these two ideas. Below ‘masculine’ is ‘not feminine’ which is implied by masculine, and below ‘feminine’ is ‘not masculine’ (another implication). The two diagonals of the square are then composed to two contradictions (masculine vs not masculine and feminine vs not feminine) and the bottom of the square has a new opposition of ‘not masculine’ and ‘not feminine’.

The challenge is then to find labels for the different places around the square. For example, ‘androgynes’, ‘hermaphrodites’ (or ‘transsexuals’, ‘metrosexuals’ or many other labels depending on the frame of reference) might fall between masculine and feminine poles. Not masculine might be ‘effeminate’ and not feminine might be ‘tomboy’. Masculine and not feminine might be ‘macho’ while feminine and not masculine might be ‘ultra feminine’, ‘femme fatale’ or ‘vamp’. The labels depend to a large extent on the objectives and frame of reference, and the process helps to structure thinking around possible blends or combinations of the binary opposition.

Let’s go back to films for a final example. Cops and robbers films continue to be popular, as do detective series on TV (especially Scandinavian ones over the last few years. While the ideas of ‘law enforcers’ (combining the law and not crime) versus ‘criminals’ (combining crime and not law) are interesting, ‘corrupted cops’ (combining law and crime) and ‘Robin Hood figures’ outside both the law and crime can be much more interesting, because of the paradoxes that they present.

Identifying spaces in between binary opposites can be much more interesting than focusing on either/or concepts.

In the next (and last) article we will explore the semiotics of advertising and the idea of ‘conceptual blending’.


The Quest for Meaning: A Guide to Semiotic Theory and Practice by Marcel Danesi (2007)

Marketing Semiotics: Signs, Strategies and Brand Value by Laura R. Oswald (2012)

2 responses so far

  1. I may not group Kierkegaard with Descartes. In fact, I would suggest a semitioc square with the following in clockwise order: Descartes (“objectivity is truth”), Kierkegaard (“subjectivity is truth”), Nishida (“truth is truth”) and Mencius (“subjectivity is objectivity”). (^_^)
    Seriously, thanks for the series. Puts the topic in quite practical terms.

  2. Chris

    Thanks for reading & glad you are enjoying the articles. I thought Kierkegaard might surprise but he was very much an either/or philosopher in the spirit of binary opposition. I need to read up on Nishida though!


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