Semiotics and Society

Paul Bouissac

As the discipline which studies signs and communication, semiotics is mainly concerned with social behavior. However, the models and theories which have been proposed so far generally remain at a high level of abstraction and are mostly used for the purpose of description and interpretation. Socio-semiotics is the only branch of research which has systematically developed a pragmatic dimension through methodologies such as critical discourse analysis. But only recently has it ventured beyond the confines of written texts to tackle multimodal semiotic processes relevant to social issues. Other fields of applications such as advertising have been constrained by the pressure of the market economy to which semioticians have made limited and questionable contributions. The potential role of semiotics in society is much wider than this. While speculating on signs and communication is a legitimate (and necessary) philosophical endeavour, the agenda of semiotics cannot remain disconnected from real life issues and limit its engagement with reality to ad hoc examples and thought experiments.
The acquisition of knowledge is indeed ultimately justified by its capacity to solve actual problems. Currently, semiotics is long on discourse but short on effective applications, the kind of contributions which would help inspire and define policies or even provide the means of building a better life for the world’s populations. It is high time that semioticians break away from their ivory tower and safe academic havens and venture their knowledge on the ground by putting this virtual knowledge to the test of reality with a view to improve society both in the short and the long terms.
Many problems have indeed a fundamentally semiotic dimension and solving them should involve the expertise of semioticians. Paths toward such applications should be seriously explored. To name only a few: prejudices which feed ethnic and other forms of social discrimination are constructed by discourses both verbal and visual; the pornographic exploitation of children is the semiotic motivation of actual abuses; the indifference toward the extinction of countless species which are not as attractive to humans as panda bears and baby seals comes from a representation deficit of the biological diversity of the planet. Even the most compelling logical arguments often fail to motivate humans to change their behavior. Semioticians should have a better and more comprehensive understanding of situations than specialized experts who tend to take a narrow view of problems and consistently miss their global targets.  Unless they were brought up in a dogmatic semiotic school of thought, semioticians are sensitized to the diversity of the specialized branches of knowledge which are relevant to communication, representation, sense-making, and the construction of meaningful personal and social lives. They know that there is not a single actual problem which can be solved by a single discipline.
But semiotics must connect with the knowledge which keeps accruing in many other domains of scientific inquiry if it is to contribute significantly to social and ethical progress without becoming a mere utopia. This agenda cannot be implemented by curricula, workshops, and conferences in which semioticians merely contemplate their navels. Interfaces must be proactively constructed and hands-on semiotics must be encouraged. This should be a wide, inspiring horizon for today’s young semioticians.


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