Semiotics: Finding meaning in storytelling

Pic showing sign saying warning this is a sign

We like patterns and signs to reduce complexity into something more manageable, and then we like to construct stories to explain how people and the world around us work because we like to feel that we know what we are doing, like we have some control over how the world works, so that we can say that everything is ok.

But in order to find meaning, we create meaning and when it feels right to us, then we say that it is so and we interpret signs, logic and symbols in that way. However, semiotics is not the study of what meaning is, but the study of how meaning is created.

In her book Semiotics and Storytelling, Bronwen Martin says that it is not just signs which help us make meaning, but also the approach of the Paris School of Semiotics led by A J Greimas which is a complete way of understanding a text, and everything it has to offer us.

The four principles

Meaning comes from the universe. So, there is no meaning without difference. There is no light without darkness, and the world only takes on shape with contrast. There are four principles which facilitate our understanding in any given text:

  1. Meaning is constructed by the reader. In the same way as the no function in structure principle. When someone comes across an artefact without instructions, then they will find a completely new purpose for it, depending on what they need it to do.
  2. Text is complete within itself and meaning comes from its structure and language rather than the ideas it contains.
  3. Story structure underlies all human communication. It seems that archetypal story patterns are hard wired in our psyche so that eyewitness accounts in court which conform to these patterns are the most likely to be believed as truth – they resonate. In order to be human, we must have a goal or quest, and from there, we have our experiences which we try and understand and make sense of (as the study of phenomenology: the study of the structure of experience, does).
  4. There are three levels of meaning in a text: the narrative level which contains the story-structure; the figurative level, which looks at time place and character; and the deep level or thematic level which links to our inner mental world with its concepts of good and evil.

The narrative level

Any narrative is a change of state or movement from one opposite to another: From life to death, or from conflict to harmony. It can be sudden or progressive where the hesitation has us on tenderhooks and we feel that it may still be possible not to complete the transformation, and that there could be an alternative ending. If a story is long, then it may have multiple transformations which are known as episodes.

Folklorist Vladimir Propp defined 31 story functions and seven character functions which A J Greimas reduced to six actantial roles: sender- object-receiver, helper-subject-opponent which he then put onto three axes of human action: desire, power and communication:

  1. The axis of desire: Any quest is motivated by a lack – of love, knowledge, truth – which leads to doing, transformation.
  2. The axis of power: A story may contain two subjects who quests are in opposition, they could be pursuing the same goal, or one subject takes the other as its object like a stalker.
  3. The axis of communication: The sender is the motivator for the quest and when the receiver receives the information, they are ready for the quest to begin and the action begins too.

Then, there is the canonical narrative schema (or global narrative programme of the quest) which has the sender and receiver negotiate (a) the initial contract to set up the quest which is then followed by (b) the competence stage when the subject (receiver) has the ability to carry out the quest, and (c) the performance stage when the actual event happens. Finally (d) sanction is where the outcome of the event is revealed and interpreted.

The story of any individual in a narrative can be described in terms of deterioration or improvement, and the choice of which term to use depends on the point of view chosen by the narrator. Often the confrontation of subjects results in the transfer of an object of value from one subject to another by test or conflict, or by a gift, or exchange.

Sometimes the narrative is interrupted by an active force or persuasion which causes a new quest and narrative to begin and leads us into a new direction.

The figurative level

The figurative level describes and creates our sense of time, place, and character, with descriptions which use our five senses. This level is important in storytelling and is also used in news stories to quickly set the scene and anchor it in our reality.

At this level we are looking for lexical fields or figurative isotopies. So, house, shop, car, factory belong to the isotopy of the city, whereas wind, rain, sun belong to the isotopy of the cosmic. We look for those relating to time and space and those which repeat themselves.

Then we look for differences: high and low, light and dark, to gain sense and meaning, and which link us to the thematic or deep level.

The deep level

The deep level concerns our inner world, our thoughts, and once we know where transformations occur and what is at stake then we can figure out what that means to us.

Then, it is time to ask: Where do the values come from? Martha Beck says that she was surprised when collecting folktales in China as they were never about falling in love, they were always about getting rich. So, in any story, we need to ask: What tradition are the values linked to? And does a story strengthen or challenge the status quo? Does it echo dominant cultural beliefs?

There are so many myths, so much resonance of stars as souls, a desire to return to an original unity, songs as a yearning for beauty and the sacred, we often don’t recognise them explicitly.

But, then if there are gaps or ambiguities in a text, does this allows us to fill them with our cultural heritage and assumptions? Does this render a text more universal? Or more truthful?

After all what is truth? Is the narrator truthful? Is the point of view true? Semiotics is concerned with the feeling of truth because it is the only measure of truth which human kind has been able to devise, no matter how far we think we have come.

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