The Object
of Discourse

My elusive science

Recently I was reading someone’s bio on the web, and it said he studied “semiotics” in college. Like that, with scare quotes, as if it weren’t really a thing, followed by an apologetic statement about all the real, productive stuff he’s been doing since.

I would have found it mildly offensive, had it been the first time I noticed something like that. Apologizing and keeping the distance from one’s past as a student or a scholar of semiotics is a recurring theme, particularly in Italy, where the subject has been central in the education of communications majors for the past twenty years, and of film and theater majors for the past forty.

I love semiotics. No quotes, no apologies. I loved semiotics even before I knew what it was, before Umberto Eco was my professor, and before I discovered there were several kinds of semiotics, and that Eco’s wasn’t even going to be my kind of semiotics. My understanding of the world, of language, of music, of the things I studied and did ever since I was a kid—my understanding of myself, even—has always taken a semiotic form.

Just to clear the air: semiotics is everywhere. My very first class at the University of Bologna was a sociology class, and the professor claimed sociology is the one thing in which all humans are experts. That was some sensationalistic bullshit meant to wow a young audience, and only marginally to make it feel at ease. All humans are, for sure, sociological informants, but there’s quite a gap between being an informant and being an expert.

Unfortunately, the instructor of the next class, my first in semiotics, made no such statement about her subject. I think that was a lack of planning on her part, which made it more difficult for most of my class—and, at first, even for me, to grasp the value of what she was teaching. I felt there was something there, but it would take me a few months to realize semiotics was the fabric of my thoughts.

Semiotics is the fabric of everyone’s thoughts. What it does is study meaning as produced, understood, and communicated by humans—if there’s one discipline that could be picked as the science of communication, that’s semiotics. However, I have a few ideas on why semioticians have a hard time explaining what they do, and in some cases end up apologizing for it:

  • semiotics has a quasi-scientific approach, but unfortunately its objects are not quantifiable, they’re not entirely objective (paradox, I know), and they often require negotiations and further approximations. This baffles not only hard scientists, but also those who practice quantitative social sciences
  • semiotics makes fast things slow: I could spend one hour talking about a two-minute scene from Mad Men, and apparently not everyone likes that
  • semiotics has been plagued by all the bullshit some academics live by, their internal and external power struggles, the special way they have to make things sound difficult to prevent others from thinking they have nothing to say. (It has also been plagued by terrifying neologisms, of which both the American and the French school of semiotics have been masters.)

Make no mistake, I’m an academic too. A satellite of the academic world, that is, which I never fully embraced, but to which I’ve continued to contribute. However, I believe that bullshit and buzzwords are detrimental to any activity, in academia as well as in the world of people who make things.

Thou shalt not use semiotics to make things

I believe that what really did semiotics in was the idea that it should never be used productively, but it was to remain an analytical tool. One may well argue that the first objective of science is to understand the world, but there is an implicit (and not so implicit, really) further goal of making the world better by, say, curing diseases, building machines, and, often enough, repairing the damage that previous science has done.

This very academic (in the pejorative sense) definition of semiotics implies that the only contribution of semiotics to the world is to produce texts whose only audiences are students, scholars, and the occasional nutcase who will read just about anything. Texts that observe, dissect, analyze and figure out how the world makes sense, but do not and ought not to affect it directly.

Scholars who subscribe to this sterile notion of semiotics frown upon any application of semiotic theories, and smirk at the fact that certain fields, such as advertising, but also much of contemporary television writing, have not only been aware of the existence of the discipline (because guess where those former students of semiotics went to work), but use it on a daily basis to do their jobs. They abhor the idea that the underlying structure of a text might reveal an active knowledge of how texts in general should work, and deem such a text unworthy of attention.

Talk about ivory tower, right? This kind of semiotician wants to be free to enjoy the world, and marvel at the underlying structures, at the patterns of meaning produced, at the multiple layers of understanding and cross-references, but only as long as the world remains oblivious to these eyes and hands that are observing and dissecting it. As long as the world maintains that ingenuity it had before semiotics was even a thing.

But guess what, just because semiotics was given a name, and was systematized in a few different ways doesn’t mean people weren’t trying to figure out how meaning worked even before. The proof is in that first semiotics class, which starts with Greek philosophers. As long as humans have not only produced meaning, but also been able to record it, they’ve also been trying to figure it out, to figure each other out.

What’s the reverse of semiotics?

I will admit that semiotics as an analytical tool gets in the way of a few things. Art is one. Art—the practice of creating texts that have no function, no constraints except that of existing, of telling stories, of pleasing or shocking the mind of the audience—doesn’t necessarily fail when it’s founded on a semiotic awareness, but it shows all its cards more easily. It’s self-conscious, and may come off as dishonest, as more of a trick than an act of genius.

On the other hand, things like advertising or writing a structured TV show aren’t art. They may have some artistic qualities, but they involve a different kind of focus, a different level of awareness, and, above all, an understanding of how to produce and convey meaning for a certain audience that art is better off without. Those, however, are the qualities of design.

I’m a semiotician, and I’m a designer. The two things go together, for to be a designer one has to be, at least to some extent, a semiotician. The designer must be aware of what makes things work and produce meaning, because meaning doesn’t just impregnate things from the outside.

Despite having made websites professionally for a while, the realization that I was a designer came to me suddenly a few years ago, and it was a surprise. Until then, I’d thought that web design was a special kind of design, not really design after all. Reading the experiences of people who had made a name of themselves as web designers, I had been led to believe that because I hadn’t gone to design school I couldn’t really be a designer. My studies, all the semiotics, all the observation, made me at most an enabler, and by making websites, by writing HTML and PHP (and by being utterly unable to draw anything) I was doing someone else’s job. I thought I would eventually develop my business enough to be able to focus on things that might be web-related, but more in tune with my education—that wide and indistinct field of communication studies—leaving the more technical, computer-sciencey details to someone else.

Then one day I just opened my eyes to the bullshit that’s all over the place, in academia as well as in the world of people who make things. You’re not a designer because you went to design school. You’re a designer because you want to understand how things work, and try every single day to make them work better. The day I realized that what I did on the web was more than just tinkering, that my years of seeing the world with a semiotic mind had shaped the way I worked, was the day I realized I was a designer.

So there was the link that held everything together: semiotics wasn’t simply a theoretical framework I used to understand my clients better, to make my content strategy more effective, to justify that I was a guy with a PhD doing something any fifteen-year-old could do—isn’t that what people believed? Design was semiotics in reverse, it was the process of building objects where there was only pure meaning, of conjuring up tools that people could use starting from ideas, abstractions, and thoughts.

First published in October 2014.

This essay originally appeared on The Pastry Box Project on September 29, 2014. The Object of Discourse is its natural home.