Visual Semiotics

Maria Giulia Dondero & Kaan Tanyeri

Maria Giulia Dondero & Kaan Tanyeri

(Please click on the above names to access their CV)

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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…


Visual Semiotics

Maria Giulia Dondero & Kaan Tanyeri (2 Yorum)

Yorum Yaz

  1. Mustafa Sasmaz dedi ki:

    Also, there is a great deal of grey areas in establishing scope and limits of semiotics in discussing a a written text and or qualifying a visual object.

  2. Mustafa Sasmaz dedi ki:

    A good dialogue ut needs a lot of definitions and clarification. For example what is Visual Semiotics as oppostobe Social Semiotics. Narrow definitions required to make the arguments more plausable and we can use Semiotic tools better.

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