David Scott’s Semiotics

By Robin Fuller


Writing on how best to approach the semiotics of Algirdas Julien Greimas, Fredric Jameson states that one should ‘feel free to bricolate, that is, in plainer language, simply to steal the pieces that interest or fascinate us, and to carry off our fragmentary booty to our intellectual caves’.[1] I think we can approach David Scott’s writings in a similar manner: as a rich repository of semiotic tools to be appropriated by the bricoleur. Scott has too, in his own way, taken a bricoleur’s approach: since his early publications Scott has remained committed to semiotics in general, without dogmatically following to the end any one theorist’s semiotic programme. Rather than attempt to resolve theories into one unified theory of semiotics, Scott has appropriated theoretical approaches according to their use-value – as a follower of Charles Sanders Peirce might say – in addressing particular subjects.

Nevertheless in the twenty-first century, Scott has increasingly prioritised Peircean semiotic analysis, as this approach is useful (as will be demonstrated below) in avoiding certain limitations which according to some critics are inherent to semiotics. Unlike other theorists one encounters in Scott’s writings – such as Gotthold Ephraim Lessing in Pictorialist Poetics (1988), or Claude Levi-Strauss in Semiologies of Travel (2004) – whose writing Scott subjects to deep exegesis, Peirce is never the topic of Scott’s studies. Peirce is to be used. However, Scott’s Peirceanism is not doctrinaire: Scott’s Peirce is not a master-philosopher and supplier of truths; rather Peirce is the name of a set of analytical tools, tools which prove useful in analysis of the interaction of the textual and visual. Further, Scott’s own approach to Peircean analysis is supplemented, and even supported, by the ideas of theorists philosophically and chronologically distant from Peirce, including Michel Foucault and Jean Baudrillard.

As Jameson wrote of Greimas, after we ‘carry off our fragmentary booty’ of theory, ‘we will find ourselves obliged, in the fullness of time, to return to the central laboratory complex for conceptual spare parts and missing tools and instruments’;[2] so it is for the reader of Scott. For the bricoleur in search of a theoretical framework, Scott’s writing is not simply a well-curated collection of theorists’ tools: in his adaption of a Peircean semiotics informed by French structuralism and post-structuralism to the study of the textual-visual, Scott has developed a rigorous and (crucially) useful method of semiotic analysis.

The aim of this essay is to outline several of Scott’s key theoretical approaches, not simply to enumerate them, but to demonstrate the ways in which they are united as products of the same ‘central laboratory complex’. Nevertheless, this is not an attempt to neutrally re-present Scott’s writings – as a bricoleur these are the parts which I have found most useful, and transformed in the process, in constructing my own machine. Below I explore Scott’s answers to questions I have been asking myself since I first attended his classes on textual and visual studies: questions such as ‘is a sign a process or a thing?’, ‘what role, if any, does reference play in semiosis?’ and ‘how does Peirce’s semiotic theory relate to structuralism?’. Sections one and two below demonstrate the way that Scott’s Peircean approach addresses many of the supposed shortcomings of semiotics (they therefore repeat much of Scott’s own more trenchant defence of semiotics, co-authored with Keyan G. Tomaselli).[3] Finally, we will see the way Scott, informed by Michel Foucault, handles the distinction between semiotics and semiology.

1. The end of semiotics

For some time now in certain areas of academia ‘semiotics’ has been used as a name for something which is said to have come and gone. While there are definitely areas in which semiotics is very much central, and increasingly so (notably in sociolinguistics and studies of the ‘Linguistic Landscape’), it is also true that in many areas of study (particularly, but not exclusively, literary studies) semiotics is not as prominent as it once was. Semiotics’ eulogists include the sociolgist-of-science Bruno Latour, who in 1993 wrote of the end of a period of ‘semiotics turns’,[4] and are even so far flung as to show up in the field of architectural practice: among a list of approaches to architecture said to have become discredited by the close of the twentieth-century, Robert Venturi includes ‘idiotic applications of semiotic theory’.[5] Even semioticians themselves are noting that, if not the entire enterprise of semiotics, a certain moment has passed: Gunther Kress and Theo Van Leeuwen, in Reading Images, describe the end of what they call the second phase of semiotics, which they name the ‘Paris School’ and describe as the application of Saussurean linguistics to the study of painting, film, photography, etc.[6]

One of the difficulties then with the alleged demise of semiotics is a problem of definition: is semiotics the name of a method of analysis (or style of writing even) which came into being around the early twentieth century, and peaked some time during the second half of the century?; is semiotics a diverse area of activity, and what is in demise is one particular ‘school’?; or is semiotics, as David Sless put it, a thing that ‘has always been a feature of human intellectual life’, and which ‘occurs whenever we stand back from our ways of understanding and communication, and ask how these ways of understanding and communication arise, what form they take, and why.’[7] As is often the case with issues of terminology, the task is not to find the correct answer (as structuralist linguistics has taught us that the meaning of a term lies in its use, not through appeal to an authority-dictionary or uncovered etymology), but to find a way of handling terminology precisely and consistently. In this and the following sections we will see the way Scott’s terminological distinctions respond to the criticisms levelled at semiotics, and in section three we will explicitly discuss Scott’s distinctions between semiotics and semiology and the centrality of these distinctions in understanding his approach to semiotic analysis.

Fig. 1. Left: Peirce and his model of semiosis; right: Saussure and his sign.

Fig. 1. Left: Peirce and his model of semiosis; right: Saussure and his sign.

One of the principal criticisms levelled at semiotics in recent decades has been the claim that semiotics institutes a sort of platonic ideal world of abstract structures behind appearances. In its focus on systems of communication and meaning, semiotics prioritises the relations between elements, and fails to attend to the realities of the world and the subjects who operate within such structures. Scott himself, writing with Tomaselli, has expressed this criticism as follows:

The analytical tendency has been to naturalize the structure of difference […] into a formal ‘map’ onto the grid of which all signs relate in one-to-one correspondence with specific reference points. In these theories, every sign consists of a signifier and a signified in arbitrary dyadic relationships that signify by virtue of their difference to other such pairs. In terms of this logic, we are imprisoned in a world of linguistic structures. The mess and confusion found in everyday life, to use Husserl’s term, are “bracketed out” because they obscure the clarity of the structure.[8]

Scott’s response is simple: such a critique is valid for (much of) the semiological tradition (what Kress and Van Leeuwen call the ‘Paris school’), but not for Peircean semiotics. While the ‘Saussure-based linguistic model […] brackets the referent’, Peircean semiotics places ‘emphasis on the complexity of the meaning-making process or semiosis on the part of the receiver.’ Far from ‘bracketing out’ reference, the subject, history, or ideology, Scott’s Peircean analysis involves an uncovering of the historical and political layers of sign construction, and a focus on the process of subjective interpretation of signs. As Scott and Tomaselli put it:

The nature of the sign in Peirce is such that we can relate social entities – be they individual or collective – to discourse on the one hand and to practice on the other, in quite a coherent way. Since the semiotic relationship is triadic, a given situation can be analysed in considerably more complex and creative ways than can be done via an application of a dyadic semiology alone. One has the means to look at the simultaneous relations between, for example, a sign and the habit it engenders in practice, the practice and the signifying subject, and the subject and the system of signification. It follows that any political aspects of such situations cannot be readily separated out from such a study: one would first have to justify why any links cannot be hierarchical, and consequently not be political.[9]

Scott’s analysis in the terms of Peirce’s second trichotomy of the sign (icon, index, symbol) is never a simple case of (al-) locating (and thereby exhausting) a semiotic status; it is always a case of exposing a ‘shifting of semiotic functions’.[10] It is precisely this unpacking of multivalent signs – the interaction of icon, index and symbol – that exposes the historical and political inherent in signification. For example, in European Stamp Design (1995), Scott discusses the use of the abbreviation ‘RF’ for ‘République française’ on French postage stamps. These alphabetical characters (symbols) serve to fulfil the primary indexical function of the stamp: to denote the country of origin. Yet these symbols are not only functionally indexical – ‘RF’ has come to serve as a sort of logotype on postage stamps, and the logotype (as will be returned to below) involves a process of ‘iconisation of the symbol’ becoming an icon ‘when it receives a noticeable degree of typographical definition or is placed in a prominent and isolated position.’[11] Yet there is a more specific way in which the symbol ‘RF’ became iconised. Following the liberation of France, the reappearance of ‘RF’ on postage stamps (replacing the Vichy regime’s ‘Postes françaises’) graphically represents the re-establishment of the French Republic, and ‘becomes a significant element in an iconic syntax conveying a specific ideological message, namely France’s liberation and the re-establishment of Peace, Liberty and French Republican values after the humiliation suffered in World War II.’[12]

Scott’s detailed analysis of Britannia in ‘The Semiotics of Cultural Icons: the example of Britannia’, exposes the historical and political process of sign formation. ‘Cultural Icons’, such as Britannia, ‘are iconic signs to which a transparent but often complex overlaying of connotations has accrued, usually after a certain period of time […] The longer the history of the icon, the richer the layering of indexical and symbolic significances organically attached to it.’[13] The construction of Britannia, which naïvely at first seems an iconic depiction, is supported by symbols functioning as indices of Britain – such as the Union Jack. Britannia is typically placed in the context of a shore, which serves as a metonym, and thereby an index for, Britain as an island nation and a maritime force, exposing the historical moment of Britannia’s consolidation as a cultural icon.

Britannia so constructed is then ‘susceptible to two sorts of semiotic manipulation.’[14] As a national icon it is highly regulated in its design and use, and its meaning (its interpretation) is ‘closely guarded and rigorously observed’ as it is ‘embodied in forms [such as] coins, seals, statues and monuments.’[15] Thus it comes to be interpreted as a symbol in the sense that recognition of its meaning is a matter of convention. Yet this attempt at semiotic fixity itself leaves Britannia vulnerable to parodic exploitation. So, for example, Britannia the symbol, becomes re-iconised, when ‘removed from a controlled context and inserted in a field of wider reference,’[16] such as the satirical cartoons of James Gilray, in which the symbol Britannia is re-iconised as woman and subjected to humiliation.

What we see in such examples is that Scott’s approach is not simply supplemented by historical and political research; rather the process of analysis is a process of exposing the historical and political in sign construction and interpretation.

As noted above, one of the claims made against the validity of semiotics is that it is either preoccupied with language (or a particular theoretical account of language), to the exclusion of all else (or to the extent that this description of language is taken as the model to describe all areas of human activity), based on a belief that (structuralist) linguistics provides for the first time the possibility of addressing cultural issues scientifically. Such a view is put forth by Julia Kristeva:

[O]ur era is bringing about a revolution […] since it is replacing the latest cult, that of Man, with language, a system amenable to scientific analysis. Considering man as language and putting language in the place of man constitutes the demystifying gesture par excellence. It introduces science where ideologies and religions are (usually) established. Linguistics […] posits language as an object of science, and teaches us the laws of its functioning.[17]

Further, to exchange goods or women, or to produce objects of art:

is a form of secondary linguistic system with respect to language […] to study their particularities as types of language, is the second characteristic of modern thinking, which uses linguistics as the basis for its study of man.[18]

Beginning with Pictorialist Poetics (1988) – which studies the relationships between poetry and the visual arts in nineteenth-century France – Scott has frequently taken the opposite path to that of the fabled Parisian semiologist who describes the world in the image of language and only allows the visual to attain meaning once it takes on the characteristics of language. In highlighting the ways in which printed language can involve semiotic strategies not normally considered proper or native to language, Scott reveals the iconic (visual) inherent in a field considered to be primarily textual. In Pictorialist Poetics, Scott studies the ‘profound connections between the verbal and visual’, and demonstrates the ‘infinitely complex’ relationship between the two ‘in which elements from one side have to be used in constituting the nature of other.’[19] Thus, in Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés, the printed poem is not simply composed of symbolic/conventional alphabetical signs, as the disposition of the text and variation in typographic size and treatment introduce iconic signification. However it is not an icon in the sense that the disposition of the text is directly depictive, rather (and in noticeably close accord with Peirce’s account of the visual and spatial nature of thought) it is an icon ‘as a diagram which attempt[s] to picture forth a mental landscape, one, that is, in which the models and structures of thought and language interact with those of visual impression.’[20]

This preoccupation with the interaction of the textual and the visual continues in Scott’s later (more intensely Peircean) studies into forms of graphic design, including the postage stamp – which Scott describes as having an ‘ideological density per square centimetre that is probably more concentrated than any other medium of cultural expression’[21] – and the poster. The Poetics of the Poster (2010) is a study which in a sense moves in the opposite direction to Pictorialist Poetics: if Pictorialist Poetics exposed the iconic in what at first seems to be a primarily textual (symbolic), The Poetics of the Poster, as the title suggests, attempts to explain a medium more ostensibly recognised as ‘visual communication’ (the poster) in a manner which emulates the study of the literary. However, this ‘poetics’ is not an example of ‘an attempt to master a field of visual representation with a verbal discourse,’[22] precisely because it is Peircean. Peircean semiotics neither claims all meaning to reside in language, nor does it deny that thought, and even language itself, includes indexical and iconic semioses. Language not being purely symbolic can be explained with the rather mundane example of demonstratives – this and that – which preform an indexical function. More interesting is Peirce’s account of the visual processes (alluded to above in discussion of Mallarmé) by which an interpretant of an object is produced through the use of symbolic signs:

Suppose, for example, I detect a person with whom I have to deal in an act of dishonesty. I have in mind something like a ‘composite photograph’ [emphasis added] of all the persons that I have known and read that have that character, and at that instant I make the discovery concerning that person, who is distinguished from others for me by certain indications, upon that index at that moment goes the stamp of RASCAL, to remain indefinitely.[23]

Similarly, the process of reasoning, according to Peirce, involves the spatial and visual, as one ‘makes some sort of mental diagram by which [one] sees that his alternative conclusions must be true, if the premise is so; and this diagram is an icon or likeness.’ [24]

In the Poetics of the Poster, Peircean analysis of the corporate logo provides the opportunity to again examine the mutual interactions of the textual and visual in constituting one another. If we begin with a textual logotype – the name or initials of a brand – one of the primary activities of branding is to ‘iconize the symbol’, that is to transform the textual expression of the company name ‘into an image susceptible of immediate, sensual and memorable apprehension’.[25] This icon/symbol hybrid functions as ‘an indexical sinsign, a diagrammatic motif which suggests or indicates the qualities of the object or service that it represents’ and which ‘remains tied to its object [the brand or product] in which it stands in a metonymical, contiguous relationship’. The semiotic slippage does not finish there: in so far as the logo functions as a means of distinguishing a brand or product from others, and the logo serves as part of a formally established branding ‘vocabulary’, it veers back towards the poll of Thirdness – convention – in that as an iconic legisign as it ‘integrates an icon [the iconised symbol] into a regular system to the extent that it operates almost like a conventional sign’. Thus the Peircean triadic approach, allows a vivid and precise discussion of the shifting layering semioses in which the textual and visual are not binarily opposed, nor is the visual subsumed in linguistic discourse, but the two are constitutive of one another.

2. Ontology or interpretation?

Above we have seen that Peircean semiotics (more specifically, Scott’s Peircean approach) avoids the pitfalls of ignoring history and politics, and subject and referent, as well as the danger of (mis-) describing the meaningful world in the image of language. However, with the vogue to declare the death of semiology/otics, Peirce has at times been explicitly included as belonging to the same bygone ‘paradigm’. Two of the causes for this are the following fallacies: the first is to view Peirce as having simply supplied a supplement to semiology in the form of the second trichotomy of the sign; the second, which often follows the first, is to treat the categories of the second trichotomy not as the names for semiotic processes but as descriptions of the ontological status of things.

As noted above, in the introduction to Reading Images, Kress and Van Leeuwen provide a three-stage history of semiotics – more precisely ‘schools of semiotics [which] applied ideas from the domain of linguistics to non-linguistic modes of communication.’ The three phases are: Russian formalism, ‘Paris school’ semiology, and finally the Michael Halliday-influenced third phase to which they belong. As their account is of schools which ‘applied ideas from the domain of linguistics’, Peirce finds no place in their history. Peirce is included only as having provided a theoretical supplement to the ‘Paris school’ in the form of his second trichotomy of the sign.[26] Although they note that such an absorption ‘in fact contradicts some of the key ideas in Peirce’s semiotics’, they do not elaborate on the precise nature of the contradiction, and thenceforth consign Peirce to the completed ‘second phase’ of their history.

One area in which the demise of the relevance of Peirce has been explicitly stated is in the nebulous field of photography theory. James Elkins opened a panel discussion on photography theory by noting that discussion of ‘the index’ dominated photography theory for approximately three decades, yet reference to ‘the index’ in this field has often involved a shallow understanding of Peircean semiotics.[27] Joel Snyder, the second contributor to the discussion, correctly notes that when Peirce is referenced in photography theory ‘it is always the same six or seven lines by him that are trotted out’.[28] The general sense among the panellists is that theorisations upon ‘the index’ have failed to account for (or interestingly describe) photography, and that it would best if photography theory were to move on. This may well be the case, however when Snyder asserts that it is ‘probably true’ that Peirce ‘didn’t have a theory of signs; he had a list of signs’, the poor-Peirceanism of certain photography theorists is mistaken for Peirce’s own.[29] Snyder’s assertion can only make no sense to anyone who has attempted to read more than ‘six or seven lines’ of Peirce. Peirce was nothing if not – as even one critic’s unsympathetic description of ‘that infuriating philosopher’ concedes – the architect of a ‘fantastically elaborate semio-metaphysical “System”.’[30] This being the case, it is often easier, even for those of us who are sympathetic, to ignore the full theoretical implications of Peirce and to simply use his work as a list of categories. If Peirce is to blame at all for this, it is because he had too much, rather than too little, theory.

A central characteristic of the use of Peircean terminology in photography theory (and in art criticism and visual studies more generally) has been the use of the term ‘index’ to designate a class of things. This is perhaps best exemplified by a 1977 two-part essay (not directly on photography) by Rosalind Krauss, entitled ‘Notes on the Index: seventies art in America’. Krauss of course borrows the term ‘index’ from Peirce; yet Krauss would infact fit into Kress and van Leeuwen’s description of a ‘Paris School’ semiologist (Roland Barthes is especially important to Krauss) who incorporates the second trichotomy. In Krauss’s work, Peirce’s contribution to semiology is reduced even further, as the second trichotomy is narrowed to a near exclusive preoccupation with ‘the index’. Further still, ‘the index’ itself is impoverished. In ‘Notes on the Index’ Krauss initially defines index in a generally Peircean manner, as being formed on the basis of existential connection between sign and object.[31] However, most often Kraus defines ‘the index’ (and it is always with the demonstrative – ‘the index’ – as Snyder has noted)[32] as ‘marks or traces of a particular cause, and that cause is the thing to which they refer, the object they signify’,[33] or ‘that type of sign which arises as the physical manifestation of a cause, of which traces, imprints, and clues are examples’.[34] This is the understanding of index that Krauss maintains in her later writings, and is representative of the general use of the term in photography theory.[35] This narrow definition introduces two specifications to Peirce’s ‘existential connection’. Firstly, it specifies causality in the direction object/referent to sign (this excludes the use of linguistic indices such as demonstratives as we cannot say an object caused us to refer to it as ‘that’). Secondly, and crucially, the index is an object found in the material world, a type of mark, a thing.

Rather than being terms for classes of things, icon, index, and symbol refer to the form of a sign in so far as it mediates the relationship between object and interpretant: the second trichotomy is not a list of things but a list of ‘rules of action’:[36] As Michelle M. Metro-Roland has put it: ‘a sign can embody each of the qualities and what matters is the way in which signs function iconically, indexically, and/or symbolically rather than their ontological status [emphasis added] as one of the types.’[37] As is already clear from the discussions of Scott’s semiotic analyses above, Scott avoids the use of the second trichotomy to attempt to exhaust the ontology of things. Scott’s Peirceanism is not a simple taxonomic enterprise into signifying things, but a hermeneutic process of unwrapping layers of accumulated meaning, and a mapping of the way in such meanings accumulate. ‘One of the problems with signs’, Scott notes, ‘is that they are difficult to pin down’.[38] The task is to reveal the ‘successive glazes’ of the sign. ‘Peirce saw signs as being always iconic, indexical, and symbolic, always subject to the interpretant, the idea to which the sign gives rise.’[39] Iconic, indexical, and symbolic functions not only interact with one another, but also serve to constitute to one another: Scott notes, ‘it is difficult to instance an absolutely pure index, or to find any sign devoid of indexical quality; symbols commonly involve “a sort of index” while indices involve a “sort of icon”.’[40]

as Peirce stressed in relation to his triadic semiotic categories, mobility as much as stasis is the principle governing the play of signs:[…] [Signs] become modified in their interaction […] all are potentially volatile, their ongoing vitality being neccessarily predicated on variation and change.’[41]

3. Semiotics as hermeneutics

In the above sections we have distinguished the semiological tradition from Peircean semiotics; however the usage of the terms ‘semiotics’ and ‘semiology’ is not stable and often the two terms are often treated as interchangeable. Some would separate the terms semiotics and semiology respectively into Peircean and Saussurean. But others, such as Umberto Eco whose ‘theory of semiotics’ is a synthesis of aspects of structuralist linguistics (principally derived from Louis Hjelmslev) and Peirce-informed concepts, pose difficulties to sustaining the distinction.[42] As we have already seen, it is useful to distinguish semiology from Peircean semiotics in discussion of the relative strengths of certain approaches to semiotic analysis. But if semiotics and semiology are the names of two specific approaches, each created at a moment in history, what then of Sless’s statement that semiotics/ology ‘has always been a feature of human intellectual life’? Here Scott makes important and subtle distinctions.

Fig. 2 Left: Foucault distinguishes hermeneutics and semiology; right: Scott distinguishes semiotics and semiology.

Fig. 2. Left: Foucault distinguishes hermeneutics and semiology; right: Scott distinguishes semiotics and semiology.

Scott uses both semiotics and semiology in two ways. Firstly, semiotics is the name of the theory proposed by Peirce, and semiology that by Saussure.[43] This is a historical understanding of the terms: semiotics and semiology were invented at a particular point in history by particular individuals, and so on. The other way he uses the terms (which in fact overlaps with the first) is closer to Sless’s sentiment cited above, though more precise. From Foucault, Scott appropriates the following distinction (which he cites on more than one occaison) between hermeneutics and semiology:

let us call the totality of the learning and skills that enable one to make the signs speak and to discover their meaning, hermeneutics; let us call the totality of the learning and skills that enable one to distinguish the location of the signs, to define what constitutes them as signs, and to know how and by what laws they are linked, semiology.[44]

In The Order of Things, Foucault describes the different ways in which the semiological and the hermeneutic were related in different épistème’s pre-dating the invention and naming of Saussure and Peirce’s philosophies. Scott appropriates Foucault’s distinction between the hermeneutic and the semiological to clarify the differences between structuralism and Peirce:

Although both [Peirce and Saussure] elaborated semiotic theories comprehensive enough to embrace both the hermeneutic and semiological aspects of sign articulation and recognition […] the emphasis in each tends towards one or other of these two. In Peirce, it is the mechanisms of interpretation (or hermeneutics) that are given more extensive elaboration than in Saussure, while the latter focuses more particularly on the internal structure of the sign […] One might say that Saussurean semiology is concerned with difference, whether within a given system or as between different systems, while Peircean hermeneutics is concerned with the other, in particular in so far as it approaches the real. This difference is reflected in the varying structural emphasis of the Peircean and Saussurean systems: Saussure works within a format of binary opposition – same/different – while Peirce’s thinking is essentially triadic. Where Saussure, bracketing the sign’s referent, concentrates his attention on the internal structure of the sign […] Peirce is concerned with the triangular relation between sign, interpretant and object.[45]

Thus Scott’s distinction between semiological and semiotic is at once attentive to Sless’s assertion that semiotics pre-dates its naming as a discipline, while at the same time recognises the particular contingent forms the study of signs has taken since (roughly) the beginning of the twentieth century. As Scott emphasises above, Peirce’s triangular model of semiosis better addresses our understanding of the external world through the inclusion of the object. Yet this is not a case of an un-mediated fragment of external reality being somehow smuggled into a system of linguistic meaning (as ‘the index’ often seems to be described in semiological photography theory). ‘The object is not fully contained by the sign referring to it’, notes Scott.[46] Peirce’s distinction between the dynamic and immediate object addresses this: the object as encountered in the sign is the immediate, as opposed to the unmediated ‘real’ dynamic object. The dynamic object is never encountered in semiosis, but the fact that new immediate objects can be encountered testifies to the existence of a dynamic object outside of semiosis.

Of central importance for Scott’s account of semiotics as hermeneutics is the role of the interpretant, which emphasises the role of the hermeneutic process in making sense of signs and sense of objects through signs. The interpretant produced on encounter with the immediate object is likewise immediate in that ‘it need grasp no more of the object than is suggested by the sign referring to it.’ But unlike the fixity of the signifier/signified relationship, the interpretant is mobile:

further interpretation is required which calls for a more complex process of semiosis in which ‘collateral’ experience of various sorts (memory, imagination, prior knowledge) must be drawn on. In such a case the interpretant must itself become dynamic, in effort to deduce through various logical strategies (inductive or abductive as well as the deductive logic of the immediate interpretant) a wider or deeper interpretation of the object than that proposed by the sign.[47]

By highlighting this hermeneutic process the subject is given centrality in the process of signification. The recognition of meaning amounts not only to competence with a code, but a creative act on the part of the interpreter:

The intrepretant locates meaning with the interpreter or interpretive communities, rather than assuming, as does semiology, that meaning resides solely within the dyadic structure of language sans reception by a perceptive being. At its most effective, an interpretant necessarily gives rise to new signs or to new uses of signs, and new sign (or interpretative) communities (new practices). This is known as unlimited semiotics.[48]

Therefore the interpretant is not directly synonymous with Saussure’s signified: the signified is fixed within a system of difference, awaiting recognition, only changing gradually and imperceptibly to the speaker of language. The interpretant is arrived at, logically and creatively, through the process of interpretation, and it itself becomes a sign in a new triad of semiosis.


As stated in the introduction, this is not an attempt to objectively and exhaustively explain Scott’s semiotics. It would be inaccurate to think that Peircean semiotics provides the only tools which Scott deploys. Where other tools prove more useful – be they appropriated from poetics, history, or Futurist theory – semiotics can be set aside. I have highlighted aspects of Scott’s semiotics which I have myself found useful in understanding the relationship of the textual to the visual and the nature of semiosis. If Scott’s theoretical approach has been the object of this paper, this has been an account of the interpretation of a particular immediate object. The dynamic object awaits dynamic interpretation.

Fig. 3 David Scott infinite semiosis. All illustrations by the author.

Fig. 3. David Scott infinite semiosis. All illustrations by the author.




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Rorty, Richard. ‘The Pragmatist’s Progress: Umberto Eco on interpretation.’ In Philosophy and Social Hope by Richard Rorty, 131–147. London: Penguin 1999.

Scott, David. European Stamp Design: a semiotic approach to designing messages. London: Academy Editions, 1995.

———. The Poetics of the Poster: the rhetoric of image-text. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2010.

———. Pictorialist Poetics: poetry and the visual arts in nineteenth-century France. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

———. Semiologies of Travel: from Gautier to Baudrillard. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

———. ‘The Semiotics of Cultural Icons: the example of Britannia.’ In Cultural Icons, edited by David Scott and Kenyan G. Tomaselli, 135–153. Walnut Creek, Calif.: Left Coast Press, 2009.

———. ‘Stamp Semiotics: reading ideological messages in philatelic signs’. In Semiotics around the World: synthesis in diversity, vol. 2. edited by Irmengard Rauch and Gerald F. Carr, 735–738. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 1997.

Scott, David and Keyan G. Tomaselli. ‘Cultural Icons.’ In Cultural Icons, edited by David Scott and Keyan G. Tomaselli, 7–24. Walnut Creek, Calif.: Left Coast Press, 2009.

Sless, David, In Search of Semiotics. London: Croom Helm, 1986

Venturi, Robert. Iconography and Electronics upon a Generic Architecture: a view from the drafting room. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1996.


[1] Fredric Jameson, foreword to On Meaning: selected writings in semiotic theory, by Algirdas Julien Greimas (Minneapolis, Minn.: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), vi–xxii, viii.

[2] Jameson, foreword, viii.

[3] David Scott and Keyan G. Tomaselli, ‘Cultural Icons’, in Cultural Icons, ed. Scott and Tomaselli (Walnut Creek, Calif.: Left Coast Press, 2009), 7–24, 7–17.

[4] Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, trans. Catherine Porter (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993), 62–65.

[5] Robert Venturi, Iconography and Electronics upon a Generic Architecture: a view from the drafting room (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1996), 8.

[6] Gunther Kress and Theo Van Leeuwen, Reading Images: the grammar of visual design, 2nd edn (London: Routledge, 2006), 6.

[7] David Sless, In Search of Semiotics (London: Croom Helm, 1986), 1. Sless states that he ‘suspect[s] that furious semiotic debates erupted while the paint was still wet on the walls of the caves of Lascaux,’ preface.

[8] Scott and Tomaselli, ‘Cultural Icons’, 9.

[9] Scott and Tomaselli, ‘Cultural Icons’, 15–16.

[10] David Scott, ‘Stamp Semiotics: reading ideological messages in philatelic signs’, in Semiotics Around the World: synthesis in diversity, vol. 2, ed. Irmengard Rauch and Gerald F. Carr (Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 1997) 735–738, 735.

[11] David Scott, European Stamp Design: a semiotic approach to designing messages (London: Academy Editions, 1995), 7.

[12] Scott, European Stamp Design, 9.

[13] Scott and Tomaselli, ‘Cultural Icons’, 18.

[14] David Scott, ‘The Semiotics of Cultural Icons: the example of Britannia’, in Cultural Icons, ed. David Scott and Kenyan G. Tomaselli (Walnut Creek, Calif.: Left Coast Press, 2009), 135–153, 135.

[15] Scott, ‘Britannia’, 135.

[16] Scott, ‘Britannia’, 136.

[17] Julia Kristeva, Language, the unknown: an initiation into linguistics, 2nd edn, trans. Anne M. Menke (London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1989), 4.

[18] Kristeva, Language, 4–5.

[19] David Scott, Pictorialist Poetics: poetry and the visual arts in nineteenth-century France (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 172.

[20] Scott, Pictorialist Poetics, 144.

[21] Scott, ‘Stamp Semiotics’, 735.

[22] W. J. T. Mitchell, Picture Theory (Chicago, Ill.: Chicago University Press, 1994), 9.

[23] Charles Sanders Peirce, ‘The Grammatical Theory of Judgement and Inference’, in Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, vol. 2, ed. by Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss (Bristol: Thoemmes, 1998), 265–269.

[24] Charles Sanders Peirce, ‘What is a Sign?’, in The Essential Peirce: selected philosophical writings, vol. 2, ed. the Peirce Edition Project (Bloomington, Ind.: The University of Indiana Press, 1998), 4–10, 10.

[25] David Scott, The Poetics of the Poster: the rhetoric of image-text (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2010), 28–29.

[26] Kress and Van Leeuwen, Reading Images, 6.

[27] James Elkins, Joel Snyder, et. al, ‘The Art Seminar’, in Photography Theory, ed. James Elkins (London: Routledge, 2007), 129–203, 130.

[28] Elkins, Snyder, et al., ‘The Art Seminar’, 131.

[29] Elkins, Snyder, et al., ‘The Art Seminar’, 131–132. Snyder mistakenly attributes the argument that Peirce had a ‘list’ rather than a ‘theory’ of signs to: Gilbert Harman, ‘Eco-location’, in Film Theory and Criticism: introductory readings, 2nd edn, ed. by Gerald Mast and Marshall Cohen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), 234–236. In fact the relevant text occurs in a different essay by Harman in the same volume – ‘Film Image and Film Language’, 204–216 – in which Harman states that ‘the theory of signs, in Peirce’s sense, contains no laws or general principles; at best it contains a few categories of classification.’ The subject of Harman’s essays is an (often convincing) critique of the semiotics of cinema proposed by Christian Metz, Peter Wollen and Umberto Eco, however his statement regarding Peirce is unconvincing.

[30] Richard Rorty, ‘The Pragmatist’s Progress: Umberto Eco on interpretation’, in Rorty, Philosophy and Social Hope (London: Penguin 1999), 131–147, 135.

[31] Rosalind Krauss, ‘Notes on the Index: Seventies art in America’, October 3 (1977), 68–81, 70.

[32] Elkins, Snyder, et al., ‘The Art Seminar’, 131.

[33] Krauss, ‘Notes on the Index’, 70.

[34] Krauss, ‘Notes on the Index: seventies art in America. Part 2’, October 4 (1977), 58–67, 59.

[35] cf. Krauss, ‘Perpetual Inventory’, October 88 (1999), 86–116; Krauss, ‘Tracing Nadar’, in October 5 (1978), 29–47.

[36] Gérard Deledalle, Charles S. Peirce’s Philosophy of Signs: essays in comparative semiotics (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 2000), 102.

[37] Michelle M. Metro-Roland, Tourists, Signs and the City: the semiotics of culture in an urban landscape (Surrey: Ashgate, 2011), 22. This use of the term ‘sign’ (at least to my tastes, if not to Scott’s) raises problems with the definition of sign: if an icon/ index/ symbol is not a sign but one of the many functions a ‘sign’ may have, what is this ‘sign’ prior to, or other than, a function? Here a little structuralism may be of use. Applying Louis Hjelmslev’s distinction between expression (or signifier) substance and form: the ‘sign’ is the expression substance, and the iconic/ indexical/ symbolic function is the expression form.

[38] Scott, ‘Stamp Semiotics’, 735.

[39] Scott and Tomaselli, ‘Cultural Icons’, 10.

[40] Scott, ‘Stamp Semiotics’, 735.

[41] Scott, ‘Britannia’, 151.

[42] Umberto Eco, A Theory of Semiotics (Bloomington, Ind.: University of Indiana Press, 1976), passim.

[43] David Scott, Semiologies of Travel: from Gautier to Baudrillard (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 10.

[44] Michel Foucault, The Order of Things (London: Routledge Classics, 2002) [Les mots et les choses (Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1966)], 33. Scott cites this passage in Semiologies of Travel and ‘Cultural Icons’.

[45] Scott, Semiologies of Travel, 10–11.

[46] Scott, Semiologies of Travel, 57.

[47] Scott, Semiologies of Travel, 57.

[48] Scott and Tomaselli, ‘Cultural Icons’, 10.


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David Scott’s SemioticsAlex Bradley