Illustrate and critically discuss the ways in which semioticians problematise the concept of 'representation'.

Roderick Munday

To answer this question effectively, requires an outlining of the differences between realist and idealist epistemologies. These debates are not staged at the level of common-sense versus counter-intuitive understanding, therefore a more philosophical explanation is required. The informed reader will notice that in the course of my explanation, I convolute idealism with nominalism. This I do quite deliberately, because I contend that that idealism: "predisposing a distinction between appearance and reality, drawn in an other than common sense way" (Honderich: 1995, 386) and nominalism: "denying the existence of universals" (Ibid., 624) are the same, in the sense that the latter rationally justifies the former. I hope that any specific damage I do to either term is outweighed by the brevity and clarity combining them brings to this complex issue.

Throughout the history of Western philosophy there has been a perennial controversy concerning how we know things about the world. The focus of this controversy has been on the status of what may be called 'objective reality' versus 'psychological reality.' Aristotle in the fourth century BC divided the world into substance and universals (Russell: 1993, 176). These are convenient categories to understand this debate. The notion of substance can be understood when some thing is actually before us. For example if we hold a rock in our hands, we are aware of its substance, but if we are then asked to describe a rock we do so in terms of its qualities. We might say that a rock is hard, heavy, or feels cold. If we talk about rocks in a more general sense, we abstract these qualities into general concepts; and talk in terms of hardness, heaviness and coldness. These generalised qualities are what is meant by universals, they allow particular qualities to be contemplated in the abstract and applied mutatis mutandis to other things, in other words they create our impression of reality. But universals are not detectable (in the sense of being measurable) in particular instances. For example, what is hardness, or coldness? When does lightness become heaviness? This is, in a nutshell, the problem of epistemology: the means we use to objectively validate reality, cannot themselves be objectively validated.

Traditionally there have been two ways to tackle this problem. One way is to argue that universals exist, even though they are not measurable. This position is called realism. The contrary way argues that universals do not exist, except in the minds of human beings. This position is called idealism. It is important to note here that neither position denies the existence of reality tout court: we should therefore not equate idealism with solipsism.

A characteristic of all philosophical inquiry is its scepticism towards things that cannot be known by rational investigation (in contrast to theological inquiry that accepts the validity of certain truths as articles of faith). The philosophical debates over the status of reality were predicated on an insistence that every stage of the reasoning process should be justifiable by reason. This explains why the idealists' criticism of the realist position was that it relied on mysticism to justify the existence of universals, in other words the realists' inability to account for the existence of universals rationally, was the reason why their arguments failed. The realist's countered that if universals were purely psychological in nature, how can there be a shared understanding of ideas and why is it that individuals feel their ideas about the world emanate from outside of themselves?

Before I explain how semiotics contributed to breaking the stranglehold of the realist verses idealist debate, I want to examine how the concept of representation fitted into this paradigm.

The short answer is that it played a minor role. Representation was nomenclature or 'naming.' The function of language was to name things or ideas that already existed, however language itself contributed nothing to our understanding of them. In art, nomenclature was conceived of in terms of imitation, or mimesis. An artist's talent was that she could copy certain aspects of reality, depending on the constraints of a particular medium. For example, a painter could copy a visual impression of reality in a painting.

(Fig. 1)

Traditionally the concept of representation had two separate senses; the imitation of reality and the embodiment of an abstract idea in concrete form. In its second sense, representation was a symbol of an idea. For example the lion and the unicorn both represented the idea of courage in heraldry.

(Fig 2)

In practice these two senses of representation were never distinct. Classical art was as much symbolic as it was mimetic and convention played a large part in dictating the form of artistic depictions. So much so, that major epochs in art are categorised by art historians based on their dominant conventions.

The start of the Twentieth Century marked a 'subjective turn' in the philosophy, art and science of Western culture. Many old certainties gave way to new relative conceptions of truth and in this respect, the challenge of Einstein's Special Relativity Theory (published 1905) to the Newtonian conception of absolute time and space, is an example par excellence.

Around this time, (1906 - 1907) the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure was teaching a course on linguistics at the University of Geneva; although his teachings did not become widely known for fifty years (Saussure: 1983, xvii). Saussure rejected the traditional conception of words as nomenclature for three reasons: it implied that ideas existed independently of words, it did not clarify whether names were vocal or psychological entities and it assumed an unproblematic link between words and the things they represented (Ibid., 67). His conception of language was as a system of signs. The linguistic sign is dyadic in nature and consists of two inseparable elements--the signified and the signifier--each one triggering the other. This is represented in Fig. 3 by the directional up and down arrows.

(Fig. 3)

(a) (b) (c)

Fig. 3 shows three versions of the same sign. It shows that the signifier and signified (a) can be likened to a 'concept' and 'sound pattern' (b) which is illustrated by the 'tree' example (c). Saussure conceived of the signifier not as a spoken word, but as the psychological impression of a word sounding in a person's head, hence the term 'sound pattern' (Ibid., 66 - 67).

The sign is subject to two cardinal principles: firstly that the connection between signifier and signified is arbitrary and secondly that language is a linear structure, consisting of words spoken one after another; forming a one-dimensional chain (Ibid., 67 - 70).

Saussure argued that linguistic meaning depended on the simultaneous existence of signs in a language system (Ibid., 111). In this respect, signs were the intermediaries between "amorphous thought" (A) and "featureless sound" (B) represented by the vertical lines in Fig. 4 (Ibid.).

(Fig. 4)

The analytical components that make up an individual sign are meaningless on their own. The signifier consists merely of vocal sounds while the concepts they stand for, only become meaningful when they are either compared with similar concepts, or exchanged with dissimilar ones in a system (Ibid., 113). However it should be noted that the negative definition of signifier and signified only holds in their analytical separation. In practice a sign is "something positive in its own domain" (Ibid., 118).

Saussure's analysis reveals that a language system is based upon a series of phonetic differences matched with a series of conceptual differences, and it is this matching that gives rise to a system of values. This bond is the positive fact of the linguistic sign, in that it creates meaning (Ibid.), but Saussure stressed that it was not a self-evident existent fact; otherwise he argued, nomenclature would be an accurate description of language (Ibid., 112). The meanings of signs have to be institutionalised in a given language by a community of speakers, in order to maintain the differences in parallel (Ibid.,119).

No matter how far back we go, language is always inherited from the past. The arbitrary nature of the sign seems to imply that language users could choose which words they preferred to use. However this is not the case in practice, because the very arbitrariness of a language paradoxically protects it from change, in other words there is no intrinsic reason to prefer one word over another, so choice is meaningless (Ibid., 72).

It is this notion that is particularly useful in countering the dichotomy of realism and idealism. Saussure stressed that words cannot represent ideas fixed in advance, when such ideas are in fact values emanating from a language system (Ibid., 114). Our ideas about the world are embedded in the language that an individual learns in childhood and continues to perfect throughout her life. This explains why there can be common understanding of ideas and why an individual feels that her ideas about the world emanate from outside of her head.

Saussure's theory made representation centrally important to our understanding of the world and was later employed by theorists who used it to 'unmask' and criticise certain hegemonic ideological practices of bourgeois culture. Thus representation was elevated in status and simultaneously problematised. For example, Roland Barthes wrote in his preface to Mythologies:

I had just read Saussure and as a result acquired the conviction that by treating collective representations as sign systems, one might hope to account for the mystification which transforms petty bourgeois culture into universal nature (Barthes: 2000, 9).

Barthes's project was therefore as much ideological as it was semiotic. Arguably his major contribution to the semiotic analysis of representation was his theory of myth. He conceived of myth as a "type of speech" (Ibid., 109). Myth took the materials of speech--language, photography, painting, ritual, objects, etc--and reduced them to a pure signifying function (Ibid., 114). Myth was therefore a meta-language whose significance was created by the sum of signs which constituted it. This is illustrated diagrammatically in Fig. 5.

(Fig. 5)

Barthes applies new terminology to describe the mythological meta-sign: the signified becomes the concept, while the signifier becomes the form. The whole sign-within-a-sign process he labels signification. In the mythological meta-sign (note that in Barthes's model of the sign the signifier and signified have swapped places) the place that should have been occupied by the signified (or concept) is occupied by the sign (form + concept). Barthes's conception was that, in the process of signification, the original sign's form (signifier) is privileged over its concept (signified). The form of the original sign in effect carried its meaning, while the concept became "a mere contingency... impoverished [and] emptied of meaning" (Ibid., 117).

Barthes illustrated his argument by discussing this cover of Paris Match

(Fig. 6)

For Barthes, the myth connoted by this image was that of French imperialism: "France is a great Empire that all her sons, without any colour discrimination, faithfully serve under her flag" (Ibid., 115). He argued that the concept of the original sign--the biography of the Negro boy--must be placed in parenthesis in order to free the picture to receive its mythical signification. However the form of the original sign has not become a mere symbol of the Negro boy saluting--for the boy has too much presence to be a mere symbol-- it is just that this presence has been "tamed" by the signification and has become the "accomplice of the concept of French imperialism" (Ibid., 118).

The work of Barthes was pioneering in the sense that it paved the way for an effective politics of representation - or at least the possibility of one. It is important to note however that Barthes's interpretation of Saussure took some liberties with the source material. Firstly because he applied semiotic principles to sign systems other than language, which Saussure analysis was narrowly focussed upon. Secondly, by ascribing an ideological function to signs, Barthes assumed that their meaning could be controlled, which was something Saussure's analysis seemed to explicitly deny: a signs essential nature was that it: "eludes control of the will, whether of the individual or of society" (Saussure: 1983, 16).

However this latter charge can be contested if we look at how the meaning of a word like stereotype has changed over time. When Walter Lippman coined the term, he meant it not just as a short cut to describe the "blooming buzzing confusion of reality," but also as a projection of a person's own sense of reality and value (Dyer; 1993, 11). However today the word has assumed a more pejorative sense as a form of abuse, because various minority groups have objected to their own stereotyping (Ibid.). Thus we can conclude that the conscious intervention of individuals, or groups, can in fact alter the meaning of signs: a fact that a close reading of Saussure reveals that he did not explicitly deny (Saussure: 1983, 78).

Minority groups, that is people who are in any way different from the norm, are frequently exposed to what Stuart Hall calls "binary forms of representation"--them/us, black/white, good/bad, ugly/attractive--and are often required to be both things at the same time (Hall: 1997, 229). This can be seen as a continuation of the traditional sense of representation as symbolising an abstract idea, for example the representations of black people, can be viewed as the representation of white people's ideas about them.

(Fig. 7)

For example, this picture of Linford Christie denotes the athlete at the peak of his career doing a lap of honour, but it also connotes a myth about nationality, race and otherness, vis a vis Barthes. Thus Linford Christie the person is also Linford Christie the 'symbol.' Which one dominates and which one is impoverished depends upon the point of view of the spectator. Christie's image came to be associated with a sexual connotation--another form of racial stereotyping--his tight-fitting lycra shorts were said to reveal the size and shape of his genitals — his "lunchbox." This was the detail on which the Sun newspaper focussed, the morning after Christie won a gold medal at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992. Asked about his reaction to the headline Christie said:

I felt humiliated. My first instinct was that it was racist, the stereotyping of a black man. I can take a good joke, but it happened the day after I won the greatest accolade an athlete can win. I don’t want to be known for what I’ve got in my shorts I’m a serious person (Ibid., 230).

Kobena Mercer’s essay about the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe further explored the sexual aspect of the representation of black males. Mercer's discussed Mapplethorpe’s black males, not as the product of the artist's authorship, but as artefacts that said something about how white people look at black people, and how black sexuality is perceived as something different and excessive (Mercer: 2002, 436). He argued that photography is primarily about the act of looking and quotes Laura Mulvey’s observation, that men are the bearers of the "look" whilst women are its passive object (Ibid., 437). Mercer observes that Mapplethorpe substitutes the socially "inferior" black male for the woman as the passive object of the 'look' and also draws upon the tradition of the nude in Western art, whose conventional subject is the naked female body, to further emasculate his black subjects (Ibid., 436). John Berger spoke about this tradition by re-inscribing art historian Kenneth Clark’s dictum that, "nakedness is to be without clothes but nude is art," as: "to be naked is to be ones self, whilst to be nude is to be seen naked by others" (Berger: 1972, 54). In substituting the naked black male body for the woman Mercer argues that Mapplethorpe is serving a colonial fantasy, the sexual idealisation of the "racial other," but taming the threat black sexuality poses to the white male ego, by presenting it through the codes of the Western nude tradition (Mercer: 2002, 436).

Mapplethorpe's photographs blatantly reinforce the stereotype that the 'essence' of the black man is his sexuality. Stuart Hall quotes Franz Fanon’s observation that white people's obsession with the sexuality of black people "fixates the black man at the level of his genitals", so that one is "no longer a Negro but a penis" (Hall: 1997, 230). This observation is more than born out in Mapplethorpe’s Man in a Polyester Suit photograph.

(Fig. 8)

Here, apart from the models hands, it is the penis and penis alone that identifies the man as black (Mercer: 2002, 436). Two photographic codes, cropping and lighting create the meaning in this photograph. One code robs the subject of his identity, so that he becomes a stereotype exemplifying white people's prurient interest in black male sexuality. The other emphasises the models otherness, the texture of his black skin, or what Stuart Hall calls "the ethnic signifier" (Ibid., 438). The polyester material of the suit emphasised in the title, can also be seen in Barthesian terms as a textual anchor with its connotations of cheapness, signifying availability. Unlike the Christie photograph, there is no way we can separate the presence of the person from the symbol here. The visual codes have denied us access to the person, whose image is purely mythological and whose body is the mere embodiment of an idea.

One could argue that Mercer's analysis of Mapplethorpe's work overly universalises, because he ignores the particular gay discourse within which it is situated. However, arguments that stress the understanding of a particular subcultural code is necessary for the proper appreciation of his work can be countered, not just because they are overly apologetic to its racist connotations, but also because, as Mercer observed, Mapplethorpe prints fetch "exorbitant prices" on the international art market (Ibid. 438).

These examples--Barthes, Hall and Mercer--have been chosen because they illustrate the critical strategies that a certain Saussurean tradition of semiotics has taken in problematising the concept of representation. As such, they constitute only a minor selection of the work of semioticians per se, and exclude completely the alternative semiotic tradition founded by Charles Sanders Peirce. But to account for that in any detail would have required an altogether different approach to the problems of representation to the one presented in this essay.

A summary of Saussurean tradition is that representation plays a central role in the way we form our ideas about the world and is therefore to be treated with suspicion. The art historian Ernst Gombrich said that "in painting there is no such thing as an innocent eye" (Goodman; 1976, 7), in the sense that an artist cannot help putting her cultural or personal prejudices onto the canvass: one might add that in semiotics, there is no such thing as an innocent idea either.

The Saussurean tradition can be said to have influenced mainstream culture most noticeably in the notion of political correctness. The justification for political correctness is Saussure's notion that representations create our ideas about the world as well as our values. The fact that political correctness is itself so disparaged in contemporary culture, especially by the more conservative elements in society, suggests that there is still some way to go before society at large comes to accept this "counter-intuitive" idea as "common sense." However the struggle that is taking place is itself evidence that the problematising of representation by semioticians and others is at least antagonising the hegemony of the status quo.

There is not really space in this essay to go into criticisms of Saussure's analysis. Suffice to say, that its narrow focus on the linguistic sign as a closed system, as well as Saussure's admission that linguistic units are formed in a "somewhat mysterious process" (Saussure: 1983, 111), does not inspire philosophical confidence. Actually there are more philosophically convincing arguments that can be used to support Saussure's basic insights. For example, Nelson Goodman's theory of notation, that demonstrates with pedantic rigour how languages are distinct-from, yet at the same time related-to other symbolic and notational systems (Goodman: 1976, 148-156 and 226).

It would be a particularly grandiloquent claim anyway, to suggest that an epistemological controversy that has raged for thousands of years could have been somehow terminated because of the theories of a Swiss Linguist. But the shortcomings of Saussure's theory of signs does not diminish the power of its central insight, as reinscribed by the interpretations of his followers. Namely, that in the manifold interpretations of reality there can be no true meaning. However, in the competing politics of ideologies there is always going to be a preferred meaning. The non-existence of the former is confounded with the existence of the latter, and in our common sense understanding of the world, it is the latter that usually triumphs. In short, this is the truth that semioticians try to make us aware of, when they problematise the concept of representation.



Fig. 1 Johannes Vermeer, Allegory of Painting [Accessed 15/5/04]
Source: (URL)

Fig. 2 W. A. Norman, Queen Elizabeth's Coat of Arms,
Source: Britannica 2002 Standard Edition CD-ROM, 1994-2002.

Fig. 3 Author, Adaptation of Saussure's Sign Diagram
Source: Saussure, Ferdinand de, Course in General Linguistics, Roy Harris (Translator) London: Duckworth, 1983 (page 67)

Fig. 4 Saussure, Ferdinand de, The Planes of Thought and Sound
Source: Saussure, Ferdinand de, Course in General Linguistics, Roy Harris (Translator) London: Duckworth, 1983 (page 111)

Fig. 5 Author, Adaptation of Barthes' Diagram of the Mythical Sign,
Source: Barthes, Roland, Mythologies, London, Vintage, 2000 (page 115)

Fig. 6 Paris Match, no. 326, [Copyright IZIS]
Source: Evans, Jessica and Stuart Hall (Editors), Visual Culture: The Reader, London, Sage Publications, 1999 (page 55)

Fig. 7 Jarecke, Kenneth, Linford Christie Holding a Union Jack, Having Won the Men's 100 Metres Olympic Gold Medal, Barcelona 1992, copyright ALLSPORT
Source: Hall, Stuart (Editor) Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices, London; Sage Publications, 1997 (page 229)

Fig. 8 Mapplethorpe, Robert, Man in a Polyester Suit, (1980) [accessed 15/5/04]
Source: (URL)


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Berger, John, Ways of Seeing, Hardmondsworth: Penguin Books Ltd., 1972

Dyer, Richard, The Matter of Images: Essays in Representation, London, Routledge, 1993

Goodman, Nelson, Languages of Art, Indianapolis, Hackett Publications, 1976

Hall, Stuart (Editor) Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices, London; Sage Publications, 1997

Honderich, Ted (Editor) The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995

Mercer, Kobena, Reading Racial Fetishism; the Photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe, in Jessica Evans and Stuart Hall (Editors), Visual Culture: The Reader, London, Sage Publications, 1999

Russell, Bertrand, History of Western Philosophy, London, Routledge, 1993

Saussure, Ferdinand de, Course in General Linguistics, Roy Harris (Translator) London: Duckworth, 1983