A sketch of a Social Semiotics: questions and directions
The central issue in the talk is this: what can Semiotics contribute to understanding and maybe tackling some currently topical social issues? It is very much the question, which, in relation to what was then mainstream theorising in Linguistics, led Bob Hodge and myself to write Language as Ideology (Routledge, 1979; 1993). On the one hand it was an attempt to show how existing categories could be used to describe the varying relations of power and language: and in doing that, to make Linguistics socially useful. On the other hand it was an attempt to change the aims and orientation of (mainstream) Linguistics. Some years later we published Social Semiotics (Polity Press, 1988), which extended the framework of Language as Ideology to a range of quite different means (and media) of communication.
My move, in 1991, from an environment of Media and Cultural Studies (at that time, in Sydney) to a pedagogical institution (my present place of work, in London) has proved very productive in that sense. It has turned out to be a move away from a focus on documenting ‘what has been’, or, maybe, on ‘what is and a critique of what is’, to a focus on ’what are the resources we have and how might these resources be used to design what might or could be’, ‘how could available cultural-semiotic resources be used in designs that give material shape to what I might want to put into the world?’
In that process important issues emerged. As always in theory-making, one uses what is available to shape the tools which might be of use in dealing with new problems. Consequently, there is much that will be familiar in my talk, and there may be some things which, while perhaps not entirely new, may be unfamiliar in their appearance and place in a semiotic tool-kit. I will describe some central issues, and illustrate them in their material instantiations: issues around constantly transformative sign-making, shaped by the agency and interest of socially shaped and socially located sign-makers; leading to the positing of the motivated relation of signifier and signified, in always newly made signs. I will indicate what this semiotics looks like, what some of its central categories are, and illustrate its uses and aims in relation to a range of significant social features and questions.