World Report

Semiotics in Brazil: Trends from the Last Century to the Present

By Monica Rector
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

1. Historical overview

Brazilian universities have a recent history. Higher education started with the University of São Paulo in 1934, modeled according to the French European system. Theory has always been a component integrated in teaching in the Humanities. Therefore, it was no surprise that in the 1960’s Ferdinand de Saussure’s Curso de lingüística geral (translated and published in 1970) was welcomed by the so-called courses on Letters (Faculdade de Letras). Semiology was introduced in several courses and authors as Claude Lévi-Strauss, who had done research in Brazil, and Roland Barthes were first read in French--French being obligatory at that time--and then translated into Portuguese (Elementos de Semiologia, 1972).

Letras taught Semiology initially as part of Linguistics. However, in the 70’s there was a split in Linguistics. The scholars who studied in Paris moved over to Semiotics and followed Algirdas J. Greimas’s line of research, the ones who got their Ph.D. in the United States opted for the generative-transformative theory and moved on to Noam Chomsky’s line of research. In 1967, Edward Lopes and Eduardo Peñuela Cañizal created the Centro de Estudos Semióticos A.J. Greimas (CESAJG) in São José do Rio Preto (São Paulo). This group undertook the translation of A. J. Greimas’s and J. Courtès’s dictionary, Dicionário de semiótica. Their group also started publishing the journal BACAB-Estudos Semiológicos. Later on, their official journal became Significação, Revista Brasileira de Semiótica. It is sponsored by the Department of Cinema, Radio and Television of the Escola de Comunicação e Artes of the University of São Paulo and Editora Annablume (26 numbers have already been published). Besides the journals mentioned previously, throughout the last half of the 20th century, the following journals have been published, some with regularity, others with only some issues: Semiótica, Acta Semiotica et Linguistica, De Signos, Linguagens. Galáxia created in 2001 by Irene Machado (10 volumes published), Face, Teia, and Dialogarts.

In Literature, there has been a tradition in creating and innovating within the evolution of critical forms. In the 1950’s a group composed by Décio Pignatari and the brothers Augusto and Haroldo de Campos, together with the Bauhaus group, in Ulm/Bern, Germany, created the movement Concretism. “Concrete poetry” became a form of poetry that combined words, the positioning of typographical lines from top to bottom of the page to indicate rising and falling intonation, visual forms and the graphic field, giving emphasis to the “white” space on the page--all of these forms having the same value to produce meaning. The verbal, vocal and visual materiality of the word and of the language is continuously emphasized. The acceptance of this kind of poetry received a weekly publishing space in the Suplemento Dominical of O Jornal do Brasil, a newspaper from Rio. The study of sign as a function, using Peirce’s methodology, required an explanation of this theory to a larger audience, therefore Pignatari published Informação, linguagem e comunicação (1969), explaining the doctrine of signs. Poesia concreta evolved to poema-processo (1956), Moacy Cirne being one of its main representatives. As the editor of the Revista de Cultura Vozes, he opened a publishing space for articles on Semiotics in this journal.

Publishing houses became interested in this field. In São Paulo, Perspectiva and Cultrix; in Rio de Janeiro, Vozes and Tempo Braisileiro; and in Porto Alegre, Globo. In 1972, the audience had access to the first collection of writings by Charles Sanders Peirce. Umberto Eco became popular, and his Tratado geral de semiótica was used both in linguistic and literary studies.

The meeting of the International Association of Semiotic Studies in Milan, Italy, in 1974, in which several Brazilians participated, was a turning point for creating the Associação Brasileira de Semiótica, in that same year. It started in São Paulo with a number of regional branches. Eco came to Brazil in 1979 reinforcing these activities (“Entrevista: Umberto Eco.” Comum 6.2. Rio de Janeiro: FACHA, 1979). Several Conferences and Symposia were organized by the Association mainly in the states of Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo and Rio Grande do Sul. From 1972 until 1984, the Sociedade Brasileira de Professores de Linguística (SBPL) held eighteen meetings at universities. In 1978, the Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro held the I Colóquio de Semiótica (Anais do Primeiro Colóquio de Semiótica. São Paulo: Loyola, Rio de Janeiro: PUC, 1980), and II Colóquio in 1980 (Anais do II Colóquio de Semiótica. São Paulo: Loyola, 1983). Thomas A. Sebeok came to Brazil for these events. He played a major role in stimulating Brazilian Semiotics and in inviting scholars to work with him in Bloomington, Indiana, as well as helping them publish their articles. In 1984, the I Colóquio Luso-Brasileiro de Semiótica took place in Niterói. Since then several Colloquia and Congresses have been held in several Brazilian states, including Bahia and Brasília.

Semiotics never really became a self-standing discipline. It has always been included as a course in Letters and further on in Communication Studies. What is the place of Semiotics today in scholarly research and inquiry? This remains the question not only in Brazil but in the rest of the world in general. It has been debated throughout the several conferences held in different states of the country.

The only Institution that was able to develop Semiotics as a field in itself was the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo as an independent graduate course, under the direction of Lucia Santaella. The curricular structure was initially organized around two nuclei. The first was composed of General Semiotics, Theory of Communication, and Social Semiotics, and the second offered four disciplines: Semiotics of Literature, and Intersemiotic Systems. Innumerous theses and dissertations have been defended since its creation in the late 70s, and specific research centers have emerged.

2. Research in Semiotics

Research has gone through different phases. Initially, as was mentioned, it became part of Linguistics, with pre-established European models and was still heavily influenced by Structuralism. Semiology soon became a secondary term and was replaced by Semiotics. In Linguistics, Semiotics was integrated by Sociolinguistics, being studied under Sociosemiotics. Discourse Analysis also started playing an important role. The study of language in text and its social phenomenon as a text narrowed the gap between Linguistics and Literary Studies. But theoretical differences continued being made between text and discourse in specific models. Theories of language were also explored by specific courses in Philosophy. However, Semiotics started really being productive and was developed in Communication and Media Research, in analyses of journalism, advertising, television and graphic designs, which replaced previous psychological and sociological models.

Initially, these tendencies can be simplified and grouped around the theoretical and methodological tendencies to which they adhere: (1) Semiotics with a linguistic origin, stemming from Ferdinand de Saussure; (2) semiotic research based on Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud, developed by Psychoanalysis and then following the theory of Jacques Lacan; (3) semiotic research in discourse analysis, according to A. J. Greimas’s orientations; (4) semiotic investigations of literature and mass communication, influenced by Charles Sanders Peirce; (5) semiotic investigations of literature, essentially following the Paris-based group of writers that includes Tzvetan Todorov, Claude Brémond, Roland Barthes and Julia Kristeva; (6) semiotic research by pragmaticists working n the analysis of language, according to John Searle’s and John C. Austin’s philosophy of language (Rector 1986:48).

In the 1980’s, besides Semiotics, the Brazilian intelligentsia adhered to new ideas coming on one side from Mikhail Bahktin’s as well as from the Russian school led by Yuri Lotman’s theories, and on the other from the Frankfurt School with Walter Benjamin’s and Theodore Adorno’s influence.

In the 90’s, emphasis was being given to text and discourse studies, a major concern for Linguistics in Brazil nowadays, intersecting with Semiotics. To explain the present state, Barros (1999) quotes Guimarães Rosa: “tão claro como água suja” (as clear as dirty water). In other words, these two words dialogue with Logics and Philosophy of Language, Structural Anthropology, Cognitive Studies, Lacanian Psychoanalysis, historical materialism, etc., thus remaining in a zone of instability and in an in-between space (185). Barros synthesizes the tendencies of text and discourse studies into seven major research fields and refers to the institutions were they are studied: 1. Discourse analysis (mainly French school), 2. Narrative and discursive Semiotics, 3. various English theories of discourse, 4. textual linguistics, 5. functionalist studies, 6. conversation analysis and 7. an eclectic field that dialogues with theory of Literature, Semiology, Pragmatics and Semantics.

Another group linked to Applied Linguistics at the Catholic University of São Paulo, starting with the studies on Fonoaudiologia (Speech Therapy) and then integrated Semiotics, mainly non-verbal signs and gestures into their research. Claudia Cotes started coaching TV anchor people how to convincingly convey their messages, furthermore new reporters began this training. Finally, it evolved to preparing specialists to do this same teaching all over the country due to demand from broadcasting stations. All TV stations have nowadays a speech therapy service, and more than 50 professionals have been adequately trained in the country. Within Linguistics, at the University of São Paulo, there is a Research Group on Semiotics, previously directed by José Luis Fiorin and, nowadays, by Ivan and Marcos Lopes and Luiz Tatit.

Semiosfera, within the field of Semiotics of Culture, is a Research Group for the Study of Semiosphere, OKTIABR, that has been active both in research as in meetings, working together with the School of Tartu, in Moscow. Irene Machado has been a major figure in this group. The concept Semiosphere was first used by Juri Lotman in 1984. One of the aspects studied by the group is semiodiversity. According to Machado,“Semiodiversity is a concept to denominate the sphere of life that refers, particularly, to the realm of signs. Although it has been created in the context of biodiversity, it assigns a wider territory, which is almost unknown. [ ] semiodiversity aims at accounting for the radicality that concerns the variety of signs.” (Machado 11).

Semiotics in Arts has also absorbed the contemporary technology and reproduces itself with the aid of the internet and the World Wide Web. WebArte is being created and made accessible to the audience through several websites.

Having left Brazil in 1990 and moved to the United States, I have followed the Brazilian Semiotics from a distance. With the advance of technology, the emphasis is now placed on non-verbal communication. Studies on visual signs occupy the frontline. Two other Brazilian scholars also moved to the USA and are continuing their semiotic studies, mainly in multimedia, visual arts and communication: Eduardo Neiva and Eduardo Kac. Eduardo Neiva is devoted to finding a theoretical alternative to what he calls the conventionalist doctrine of signs: the semiotics that gives priority to codes and rules. His theoretical option is centered on the reading of Darwinian evolutionary biology to retool semiotics as a conceptual frame capable of understanding the utmost variety of the forms of life in the natural world. Related to non-verbal signs, I organized a Congress in Oporto, Portugal, on Gestures. The outcome was two co-edited publications, one with articles in English and the other in Portuguese: Gestures: Meaning and Use (Oporto: Edições Universidade Fernando Pessoa, 2003) and Gestos: uso e significado (Oporto: Ed. Fernando Pessoa, 2003). This Congress lay the base for the creation of the International Association of Gestures and its journal Gestures, edited by Adam Kendon and Cornelia Mueller.

3. Publications

Several articles giving an overview on the study of signs in Brazil were published in the last 50 years. The content varies between historical information, research, studies in specific institution, and bibliography. The bibliography contained in these articles is subdivided into fundamental books, literary practices, communication, didactic works, collections, journal, theses and dissertations. I opted in not repeating the bibliography contained in the articles below, because it would be too extensive. I will list them in chronological order:

Articles on Semiotics in Brazil

  • Ferrara, Lucrecia D’Alessio and Décio Pignatari. “Études de sémiotique au Brésil.” Versus 8-9, 1974.
  • Carvalho, Julio. “A semiologia no Brasil.” Revista de Cultura Vozes, 1974: 19-26.
  • Rector, Monica. “Semiotics in Brazil.” Semiotic Sphere, Thomas A. Sebeok and Jean-Umiker Sebeok (eds.). New York, London: Plenum Press, 1986. 47-58.
  • Rector, Monica and Eduardo Neiva Jr. “Estudo dos signos no Brasil.” Revista de Cultura Vozes 9 (1978): 5-12. The same article appeared in “Étude de signes au Brésil.” Degrès l (1979): D1-D12.
  • Pais, Cidmar Teodor. “Semiótica, uma ciência em construção.”Anais do II Colóquio de Semiótica. Rio de Janeiro: PUC, São Paulo: Loyola, 1983.
  • Santaella Braga, Lucia. “Brazil: A Culture in Tune with Semiotics”. The Semiotic Web. Thomas A. Sebeok (ed.). Berlin, New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 1989. 124-175.
  • De Juano, Maria Nélida. “Structuralism and Semiotics in Brazil: Retrospect prospect. Dispositio 3- 7, 8 (1992): 175-187.
  • Barros, Diana Luz Pessoa de. “Estudos do texto e do discurso no Brasil.” DELTA 15 (1999). 183-199.
  • Fiorin, José Luiz. “Linguística:perspectivas e aplicações.”Estudos linguísticos. XXXIII Anais de Seminários do GEL 1(1994): 18-25.
  • Machado, Irene. “Projections: Semiotics of Culture in Brazil.” Sign Systems Studies 29.2 (Tartu University Press) (2001): 463-478.
  • Razões e sensibilidades: a semiótica em foco. Arnaldo Cortina and Renata Marchezan (eds.). Araraquara: Laboratório Editorial FCL/UNESP, 2004.

4. Research Center and Institutions in Semiotics

It is not my objective to mention all the Universities and courses that teach Semiotics. I am going to outline tendencies in the 21st century and the shift from Linguistics and Literature to Multimedia and Technology research.

a. CISC (Centro Interdisiciplinar de Semiótica da Cultura e da Mídia)
CISC was created in 1992 and its purpose it to promote research on phenomena/texts on culture as a communicative function, stimulating studies in the Science of Communication in a dialogue between informative manifestations and signs in live organisms and in society. In the last eleven years, innumerous works have been produced, influenced by Russian Semiotics, and by the works of the Bystrina, Harry Pross, and Dietmar Kamper. There has been a close collaboration with some of these authors. The Center was first linked to the Catholic University of São Paulo. Norval Baitello Jr., the scientific coordinator of the Center, was interested in developing Semiotics of Culture, and integrated other Brazilian institutions to collaborate with the Center. In 2002, the webpage was established, publishing a weekly newsletter NotiCisc. In the same year, the digital journal Ghrebh- came to life.
b. Semiotic Engineering
Semiotic Engineering, according to its webpage, was motivated by the idea of “bringing interactive software designers onto the HCI (Human-Computer Interaction) stage, as the creators of communicative artifacts of a peculiar nature. Interactive computer applications are one-shot messages, sent from system designers to system users, comparing how to interact with the system in order to achieve a certain range of goals.” The goal of Semiotic Engineering is to characterize HCI in semiotic terms, and to provide a series of models, methods, tools and techniques that will help us understand and build better interactive artifacts. Clarisse de Souza is the author of The Semiotic Engineering of Human-Computer Interaction, published in February 2005 by The MIT Press.
c. Computational Semiotic Group
The Computational Semiotic Group, founded in 1998, is composed by the Department of Computer Engineering and Industrial Automation (DCA), Faculty of Electrical and Computer Engineering (FEEC), of the State University of Campinas (UNICAMP). According to their website, “Computational Semiotics refers to the attempt of synthesizing a semiosis cycle within a digital computer. Among other things, this is done aiming for the construction of autonomous intelligent systems able to perform intelligent behavior, what includes perception, world modeling, value judgment and behavior generation.” The group claims “that most part of intelligent behavior in an intelligent autonomous being is due to the semiotic processing happening inside this being. In this sense, an intelligent system should be understood as a semiotic system and studied like that.”
d. Organisational Semiotics (OS)
Organisational (written with an s and not a z) Semiotics (OS) is a research group within UNICAMP, state of São Paulo. According to their website, it “is an emergent discipline to study the nature, characteristics, function and effect of information and communication within organisational contexts. The contribution of this discipline to the understanding, analysis, modelling, design and implementation of organisational and technical information systems has attracted much attention of researchers and practitioners from many subject areas.” Furthermore, “Organisational Semiotics opens up the prospect for scientific theory building and provides a handle for gaining an insight of organized behavior, in the presence and absence of various technologies. Methods and techniques developed based on this theory provide insights into organized behavior and enacted social practices.”

This group has organized a series of the International Workshops since 1995 and, effective in 2006, the OS community has decided to name it the International Conference of Organisational Semiotics.

e. Inter Psi and Psi Research
Inter Psi (The Group for the Study of Semiotics, Interconnectivity and Consciousness) is a psi research center established in 1999 in the Center for Peircean Studies. It is part of the Graduate Program of Communications and Semiotics of the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo. One of their activities has been to evaluate “25 poltergeist cases from a semiotic point of view, defending the thesis that poltergeist events represent a form of expression of the psychological context in which they occur, translating, in a sense, the psychological into the physical.” They have investigated the psychosocial dimension of spiritist mediumship as it is practiced in Brazil, using Psychosocial Role Theory. Other members of Inter Psi are doing academic research studies, focusing on putative psi phenomena, as xenoglossy among others. The group has a website, for the Mega-Portal program, that is a collaborative effort among Inter Psi members to develop websites that disseminate the content and results of international psi research in a systematic manner. Also available on the site is a virtual journal, Revista Virtual de Investigación Psi.
f. Associação Brasiliense de Comunicação e Semiótica
The Association of Communication and Semiotics from Brasília is one of the most complete websites with information about events, national and international, journals, online articles and other activities related to Semiotics. It is an excellent resource to update information.


Lucia Santaella pointed out that the “Brazilian culture is a semiotic culture”. … ”[It] is fundamentally an oral, visual, tactile, and corporal culture.” (Santaella 1989: 124). Being dance and music an integral part of the cultural manifestation, Semiotics is an ideal space to explore these fields, especially on the non-verbal ground. I totally agree with this opinion. Furthermore, she mentions “that the Brazilian culture is typically a culture in imbalance, due to the dominance of nonverbal signs, the fact that a more lettered culture has never really taken root and lacks weight in the country” (125). I cannot agree with this statement. The verbal sign has predominated throughout the century. Access to publications and their translations has been delayed for centuries due to the Portuguese language, which has been a major impediment to propagate Brazilian literature throughout the world. Until now there is only one Nobel Prize in Literature in the Portuguese Languages, José Saramago in 1998, although several other authors have already been nominated. Behind the non-verbal signs there is always a verbal component. In a way, the tendency of concretismo to integrate verbal, vocal and visual sign has dominated the Brazilian culture in the last 50 years. The kind of studies done presently in Brazil are, as Roland Barthes would say, translinguistic in the sense that Semiotics deals with linguistic and non-linguistic signs, but the verbal language will always be the master. Although when the Elementos de semiologia was published, Barthes had no idea that the sign would be so transformed by media and technology and this is being mastered by the several Brazilian research groups mentioned in this article. In the 70s Semiotics was a large umbrella for cultural studies, nowadays Cultural Studies took its place. Following this tendency, Semiotics of Culture has overtaken and included in a way linguistic and literary semiotic studies. In 2007, one can say that Semiotics in Brazil is focused, on one hand, on social research linked to behavior and paranormal phenomena and, on the other, on multimedia and technological aspects of developing and understanding the mechanism of hardware operations with computational and engineering semiotics. Semiotics is an open path in Brazil, incorporating different theories and applications in a continuous semiosis.