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date: 28 May 2020

Summary and Keywords

Semiotics refers to an intellectual tradition that deals with processes of making and interpreting meaning in all kinds of text, in all modes. However, semiotics was never integrated into mainstream disciplinary structures. Because of this marginal status semiotic tendencies flourished outside and between the major disciplines. As a discipline semiotics seems small, vulnerable and out-of-date. But as a broad intellectual tradition semiotics can be seen as a meta-theory which encompasses literary theory. This second perspective makes semiotics more useful for literary readers, and hence is emphasized in this chapter. Semiotics’ value is enhanced when it is seen as a complex, heterogeneous field with fuzzy boundaries and productive entanglements with literary objects and theories.

“Semiotics” comes from Greek semeion (sign, omen, or trace), something that points towards important, often hidden meanings. Signs in this sense go beyond words and verbal media. This scope gives “semiotics” a radically disruptive quality. Western culture in the modern era has been based on the primacy of words as carriers of all meaning and thought. Semiotics is the site of a radical challenge to this dominance. Semiotics sees signs and meanings everywhere, in every mode, not just in words.

The changing media of literature in the present and past raise many semiotic issues for literary theory. Poetry always carried meanings through sound as well as words. Drama needs to be performed. Film and multimedia carry the role of print fiction in new contexts. In the multimedia 21st century, literature has gone beyond writing, and its theories need a semiotic dimension.

Semiotics has a divided history, with two founding fathers. Peirce emphasized complexity and flow, and Saussure emphasized structure. Before 1960 structuralism dominated, but by the end of the 20th century post-structuralism prevailed. Semiotics went underground, but left traces everywhere of the intellectual revolution it participated in. It helped to trigger the turn to meaning across the social sciences and celebrated the irreducible complexity and diversity of forms and meanings in literature and life in the modern world.

Keywords: semiotics, structuralism, post-structuralism, Charles Peirce, Ferdinand de Saussure

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