Maria Giulia Dondero & Kaan Tanyeri
(Please click on the above names to access their CV)
Although semiotics was considered a literary field due to its first applications, it has today become very diverse. You mostly concentrate on visual semiotics. Can you tell us the story behind this, of how you got acquainted with semiotics? And is there a reason you chose to focus on visual semiotics?
I was a student at the University of Bologna, at the D.A.M.S. (Disciplines of Art, Music and Performing Arts, Faculty of Philosophy and Humanities) and I followed art history classes. In 1996-1997, Paolo Fabbri came to teach in Bologna and I was truly captivated by his visual semiotics classes. It was then that I realized that my interest lied beyond art history, that I needed to study the visual arts from a different perspective, looking for similarities and differences between images from different time periods. After this encounter with Paolo Fabbri, I began to study general semiotics.
Which semioticians have had the greatest influence on you? Could you tell us about them?
After Paolo Fabbri, I met Jacques Fontanille who is the semiotician whose semiotic theory inspired me the most with respect to image analysis and to the general theory of textuality and of bodily enunciation. I still think that he is the most innovative post-Greimasian scholar and that he is the most generous with his students. My approach to scientific images and my book written with Fontanille, The Semiotic Challenge of Scientific Images. A Test Case for Visual Meaning, are also inspired by Jean-François Bordron’s theory of iconicity and by his proposition regarding the process of transition from substance to form on the image’s plane of expression.
Another very important semiotician in my life is Jean-Marie Klinkenberg. He is someone who did a great job regarding visual rhetoric and visual semiotics and he was probably the first semiotician to be concerned with the materiality of images in the 70s. I have often been critical about some parts of his general semiotics theory but everything he wrote about images has inspired me tremendously, especially his approach to image-text theory (what we call “syncretic discourse”).
Another semiotician who was and is very important as regards my semiotic thinking and methodological approach is Pierluigi Basso Fossali, who is someone who is able to conciliate strong formalization with very sharp analyses of cultural objects.
Indeed, literary writing has been and will continue to be defeated by the visual, if I am correct? The future is built on visuality. How can we explain this? Humanity has been seeing since the very first human, but our eyes seem to have acquired a different importance in today’s world.
I think that what has changed in recent times is that we understand that images can be studied in a more profound way than along the lines of Barthes’ approach or according to a philosophical approach. Semiotics allows people to understand that an image is a discourse and that it may produce arguments, conflicting arguments, and meta-reflection. The field of visual studies also contributes to the understanding of images, but the problem with visual studies is the ideology that guides the reading of images and prevents from understanding the meaning of an image based on the analysis of its spatial composition as such.
I’m also convinced that the issues of interest to visual semiotics are very close to those faced by writing studies. Both disciplines have the problems of the substrate and of inscription in their focus and the crossings between the two are becoming important today due to a shared interest in digital literacy.
I am currently working on literary semiotics. This is undoubtedly due to my commitment to literature. How do visual semioticians view literary semioticians? Are we out of date?
I think that everyone has a lot of respect for literary semiotics! Visual semiotics took inspiration from verbal and literary semiotics – one need only look at the use of enunciation theory in image analysis – but I think that literary semiotics can also learn a lot from visual semiotics. Not only can the distinction between figurative and plastic analysis be useful to literary analysis for studying the narration of events and the schematic relations between them, but also the idea of a text as a material body (novels or narrations are also material objects) and as a mediatic object can carry current literary analysis towards greater complexity, which is especially relevant today as literature is being circulated over new mediums. Current visual semiotics is also studying the image as a materiality and is contributing to the material turn that began in visual anthropology (see Photographs Objects Histories: On the Materiality of Images, Elizabeth Edwards and Janice Hart, eds., 2004). I think that literary theory needs to take advantage of what semiotics has been doing to study visuality and, more generally, media.
So how does visual semiotics study the image? Through which processes do you conduct your analysis?
To analyze images, I use some basic concepts from Greimas [“Figurative Semiotics and the Semiotics of the Plastic Arts.” New Literary History, 20, no. 3 (1989):627-649] that have been fine-tuned by semioticians such as Jacques Fontanille through the notions of substrate (support matériel et support formel) and of complement, as well as some others by Pierluigi Basso (it is possible, in his view, to perform both a plastic and a figurative reading of the plastic enunciation). But the most important is to associate the plastic and figurative analysis with the study of uttered enunciation (énonciation énoncée), because the latter allows you to understand the relationship between the image’s composition (types of perspective, indexical addresses, conflicts between points of view, and so on) and the position (spatial but also cognitive and emotional) that the image has set for the observer.
What is the main purpose of these analytical processes? Getting the hidden meaning behind what is visible? If so, does every image necessarily have a latent meaning? Because I don’t think that an ordinary everyday photograph posted on social media will have much of a hidden meaning. In such case, would your analysis change?
I’m not very interested in the hidden meaning of images! I’m more interested in studying their composition, their genre, and their status. The status is what determines the type of interpretation applied to the image and the conditions of its circulation. You speak about images on digital social media. They have a different status: they circulate through different ecologies of values than do artistic and scientific images. The analysis has to begin by taking account of the statuses of images, of their genres (portrait, still life, and so on), and of their genealogy. The methodological instruments to use are different whether we must analyze an artistic image or a scientific one. In the first case, it is the analysis of the plastic and material dimensions (gestures of production) that are critical, whereas scientific images have to be studied from within a series of images in relation to the parameters that have been institutionalized to produce them. Every scientific image has to be reproducible by other scientists, in order to be scientifically valid. Ordinary photographs have an amateur status and must be studied in the way that family and personal photographs have been in the past, with attention to imperfections, errors, filters, and uttered enunciation in relation with the community to which the photograph is addressed (family, friends, large communities, etc.).
Speaking of social media, we can also talk about big visual data. Could you please tell us about big visual data? How does semiotics relate to big visual data?
Not so many scholars in semiotics are dealing with this issue. One of the first has been Dario Compagno, who worked on the analysis of big data relating to political and journalistic information. For my part, I am trying to understand how the analysis of big visual data can help the semiotic analysis of corpora and to develop an analysis of the genealogy of forms that was not possible in Warburg’s and Focillon’s time (see: https://ceserh.hypotheses.org/997). I studied the visualization of big visual data as a meta-image in my last book The Language of Images. The Forms and the Forces and I tried to study it in the tradition of “images within images” in art history and in the domain of language sciences. I think that the study of big visual data can be very useful to semioticians, who have always been interested in finding “common diagrams” – as Paolo Fabbri said in La svolta semiotica – between different kinds of discourses. The analysis of visual forms through computational analysis can also offer the possibility of defining analytical parameters in a way that our perception does not allow. It’s absolutely critical, for semioticians, to understand how machine learning works and how we can understand the algorithmic production of values.
In this context, can we say that semiotics will become an even more valuable method in the future? I think our need for it will increase day by day to better understand the world.
It’s possible. But it is necessary for young semioticians to be specialists in new technology and new communication formats. I think that in this respect, semioticians who work in Italy are more disposed to learn and study the new frontiers of communication technology.
What is the state of the studies on visual semiotics around the world? Which academicians can we talk about in this regard? Is there an environment constituted by visual semiologists or is there a journal they are gathered in?
The Journal Visio does not exist anymore, but the International Association for Visual Semiotics (AISV/IAVS) is working on the digitalization of past Visio issues to make them public. I think that the best visual semioticians are the ones I already mentioned in my first answer. Some very important analyses have also been produced by Anne Beyaert-Geslin, Marion Colas-Blaise, Odile Le Guern, Massimo Leone and Anne Hénault.
You know I often disturb you with my questions. What would you suggest to researchers like me and others who are interested in semiotics? What should we do, what should we read?
I would give you only one piece of advice: it is necessary to be able to read a lot of Romance languages to build skills and a culture in semiotics. Even if many important books are translated into English (almost the entire oeuvre of Greimas is translated, for instance), the European semiotic tradition (which is also present and being renewed in Latino-America) and very important papers are mostly written in French, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish. It’s very important not to limit oneself to English-speaking literature and culture.
Finally, I would like to hear your wishes for the Turkey Semiotics Circle. Do you have a message for us?
I’m very glad to know that the Turkish Semiotics Circle is becoming strong. Turkish scholars and intellectuals are multilingual speakers; this is an important quality and I hope for younger generations to achieve precisely that: being cultivated people who can read a lot of languages…
Thank you very much for everything…