World Report

Semiotics in Australia

By Geoffrey Sykes

It is intriguing to consider how academic disciplines can be delineated and determined along national boundaries. To consider how different traditions of semiotic inquiry of the twentieth century have been configured in terms of national identity helps to correct the positivism and scientism that can overly dominate much semiotic inquiry. National and regional differences provide a perplexing form of cultural and geographic epistemology that can have continued relevance in explaining ongoing priorities for semiotic research.

Whatever can be said about semiotics in an English speaking, developed, small (in terms of population if not geography) yet postcolonial country like Australia is bound to be distinct from what prevails in many European or North American intellectual cultures. There is not the time in this brief review to itemise the factors – political and ideological, economic, intellectual and university culture, intellectual leadership – that could explain national differences.

On the one hand, the “tyranny of distance” often associated with Australia’s geographic isolation from Western intellectual culture has produced a variety of independent scholars and colleges of thought. A main and outstanding example of such “home grown” semiotic inquiry can be found in the work of Michael Halliday. For three decades, the discipline of Systemic Functionalist Linguistics has proven to be a most influential movement both within Australia and internationally, hosting regular international congresses. Halliday himself can truly be claimed as one of Australia’s most influential educators. His work has certainly been mentioned at recent IASS meetings, as a valuable resource for any inquiry into social semiotics.

His theory of language is hybrid, and includes explicit post-Saussurian semiotic concepts within an integrated approach to a functional account of language and social interaction. Unfortunately his conception of semiotics seems to be limited to the level of macro or cultural contexts, and does not address ideas such as those of Bakhtin or Peirce to provide a comprehensive semiosis that accounts for interpersonal interaction.

The linguistic background of Halliday can also seem a limitation compared to the vigorous approach to non-verbal expression presumed in much semiotic inquiry. However, scholars such as Thibault and van Leeuwin have continued to develop and expand the methods of systemic functionalism, and apply them to non-verbal and visual examples.

Despite the deep and successful nature of multiculturalism in Australian society, the heritage of its colonial and British past has remained strong in terms of the representation of semiotics in humanities studies. Stuart Hall and the Birmingham school of cultural studies attract more citations than Umberto Eco’s variety of cultural analysis. The commitment to cultural studies, and its attendant themes of power, social discourse, controversy, class and race has been substantial, self conscious and sometimes parochial in Australia. Foucault on discourse and Barthes on Marxian analysis of popular texts are staples of undergraduate teaching – Greimas, Peirce, biosemioics, phenomenology and East European semiotic studies can seem very distant. Semiotic concepts can often be used selectively and, it must be said, simplistically (at least in terms of Peircean studies) by influential authors such as John Fiske, as tools for analysis in pursuit of social and political goals.

The growth of Creative Arts faculties, such as at the University of Western Sydney, along with the growth of vibrant media departments such as the University of New South Wales and Murdoch University, has resulted in a diversification of applied semiotic studies in area of performance, visual and media theory, and a sophisticated inquiry into phenomenological and pragmatic studies of embodiment, visual and non verbal expression has occurred.

The introduction of literary theory was delayed in the 1970’s by the dominance of Leavisite criticism (a British, ethically based school), New Criticism and the emergence of Australian literary studies as a disparate inquiry. More recently there has been a substantial commitment to forms of Russian formalism and narrative theory, and European theory generally, as well as to post-structural inquiries such as feminism. The new secondary English syllabus in New South Wales has included a range of implicit textual and theoretical approaches.

Individual scholars, taking the initative to establish international networks, have accomplished much excellent semiotic work. Rodney Clarke has developed a semiotic-based theory of organisational communication and change, Horst Ruthrof has been exemplary in maintaining affiliations with the IASS, and representing European thought in his teaching at Murdoch University. His book The Body in Language represents contemporary themes of embodiment. Judith Grbich and Rick Mohr have specialised in law and semiotics, while Steve Whitford has made explicit semiotic study of architecture, and Gulten Wagner has addressed the organization of libraries. Meaghan Morris has exemplied the style of independent scholarship that embraces semiotics within cultural studies. Geoffrey Sykes has undertaken doctoral and post-doctoral inquiry into the pragmatic semiotics of Charles Peirce. Scholars such as Terry Threadgold, Ien Ang, Bob Hodge and Gunter Kress represent a hybrid theorising that transforms cultural analysis into a frame for comprehensive semiotic and theoretical inquiry.

This list of independent scholars could be much longer, and apologies are made for omissions. However, the very attempt to construct such a list indicates a style of independent scholarship that can be said to characterise the best of semiotic inquiry that has been done in Australia. The institutional forms of annual congresses, informal networks, strong IASS representation, semiotic departments and degrees, and institutes, seem to be mainly if not entirely absent. This absence is not only an oversight; in its search for post-structural, social relevance, the British tradition of cultural studies can often characterise European semiotics as positivist, and it is unusual to foreground semiotic teaching or research.

In terms of communication semiotics, Australia has not had the tradition of large communication departments such as in North America, within which specialisms in a theory of communication and semiotics could be located.

An exception to the informal nature of semiotic studies, and lack of institutional conferences, is the hosting of the Roundtable on Law and Semiotics, at the University of Wollongong, in July 2007. In addition, outstanding journals such as Continuum and Media Information Australia continue to expand the types of media and cultural discourse, and embrace semiotic methodologies.

In general however, semiotic study comprises a robust yet fragmented and distributed practice, its ideas sited as sub concepts and tools for research across many disciplines without having found the historical or national basis for separate development as a discipline or institutional identity.

The same questions that are frequently asked internationally at semiotic congresses can be asked in particular about the future of study in Australia. Is there a place for a separate specialised study of semiotic? What form would such specialism take, and what institutional affiliation would be required? How explicit and fore-grounded can semiotic teaching become, and what faculty affiliation would be most suitable?

In answer to these questions two directions can be suggested. Both can have particular reference to Australia’s geographic location, both in South East Asia and Pacific regions.

First, there is undoubted room for improved theory and teaching in communication studies that can include semiotic perspectives. It is possible that the phenomenological and pragmatist premises that have grounded such perspectives in the past could be extended to include an Eastern perspective of self, language, consciousness, signs and communication.

Second, a post colonial conference in Dunedin, New Zealand, late last year testified to how enduring this tradition of historical and social inquiry has been, and what a range of eclectic and diverse methodologies it attracts. To mention New Zealand in a report on Australia demonstrates how fluid national boundaries have become, yet how intriguing is the role of negotiating regional identity in the unbounded and unregulated global economy. Australia and New Zealand, along with the South American countries, share common concerns with indigenous cultures, geographic isolation (relative to Europe), economic production, climate and social changes, and the effect of colonial pasts.

Semiotic perspectives have proved invaluable in approaching the artefacts and texts of indigenous cultures. Scholars such as Robert Bednarik and Paul Tacon continue in their own way and methods the general experiment in semiotic anthropology commenced by Levi Strauss over sixty years ago. Questions of dating, cultural origins, and contemporary cultural and political identity continue to be asked and to require innovative research solutions.

It is possible that varied semiotic methods can help contribute to dialogue about political and cultural identity, and economic and social change, of peoples and countries surrounding the South Pacific and Indian oceans.

A Selected Bibliography

  • Ang, I. Living Room Wars: Rethinking Media Audiences for a Post-modern World. NY: Routledge, 1996.
  • Clarke, R. An Information System in its Organisational Contexts: a Systemic, Semiotic, Longitudinal Case Study. (doctoral manuscript, University of Wollongong), 2000.
  • Eggins, S. and Slade, D. Analysing Casual Conversations. London: Cassell, 1997.
  • Fiske, J. Introduction to Communication Studies. London: Methuen, 1990.
  • Halliday, M. Language as Social Semiotic: The Social Interpretation of Language and Meaning. London: Arnold, 1978.
  • Halliday, M. An Introduction to Functional Grammar. London: Arnold. Revised by C.M.Matthiesssen, 2004.
  • Kress G and Van Leeuwen T. Reading Images: the Grammar of Visual Design. London: Rouledge, 1995.
  • Morris, M. Identity Anecdotes: Translation and Media Culture. London: Sage, 2006.
  • Ruthrof, H. The Body in Language. London: Cassell, 1999.
  • Sykes, G. Semiotics as a Logic of Action. (doctoral manuscript, University of Wollongong), 2000.
  • Thibault, P. Re-reading Saussure: The Dynamic of Signs in Social Life. NY: Routledge, 1996.
  • Threadgold, T. Feminist Poetics; Poeisis, Performance, Histories. NY: Routledge, 1997.