Signs and Signing
"A sign… [in the form of a representamen] is something which stands to somebody for something in some respect or capacity. It addresses somebody, that is, creates in the mind of that person an equivalent sign, or perhaps a more developed sign. That sign which it creates I call the interpretant of the first sign. The sign stands for something, its object. It stands for that object, not in all respects, but in reference to a sort of idea, which I have sometimes called the ground of the representamen’ (Peirce 1931-58, 2.228). The interaction between the representamen, the object and the interpretant is referred to by Peirce as ‘semiosis’ (ibid., 5.484)." - Pierce
Jasper Johns, False Start, 1959.











The value of a sign is determined by all other signs in the system
  • Saussure developed an abstract, structural understanding of language that was relational rather than referential.
  • For Saussure, our understanding of the world works through relationships.
In other words, he thought about the sign rather than the thing.
And, concluded therefore, no-thing has meaning on its own.











To Jacques Derrida, the sign is the play of identity and difference; half of the sign is always “not there,” and another half “not that” [We define everything negatively, a chair is ‘not’ a table, ‘not’ five-legged, one-legged, ‘not’ animate, ‘not’ of flesh. This is from Ferdinand de Saussure]. The sign never leads to the extra-linguistic thing, it leads to another sign, one substituting the other playfully inside the structure of language.

We do not feel the presence of a thing through a sign, but through the absence of other presences, we guess what it is. To Derrida, trace and not “being-there”, difference and not identity which creates meaning inside language.











Saussure conceived of linguistic systems through differential relationships:
  • The approach emphasizes the differences between signs.
  • Saussure argued that we tend to define everything negatively, a chair is ‘not’ a table, ‘not’ five-legged, one-legged, ‘not’ animate, ‘not’ of flesh.
  • Relationships between things that are in opposition are said to have a "binary" relationship.
For example, explain the color, "red."
Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917.











Ad Reinhardt, Abstract Painting, 1957.











Josef Albers, D R a (in red), 1968.






















Saussure suggests that meaning doesn't exist before difference.
In other words, without binary oppositions in language, we wouldn't have meanings.
Moreover, Saussure argues that language (communication systems) actually frame how we see the world
    • the word is not directly accessed through the system
    • the word is mediated through the system, instead
Thus, the interpretation of a sign is dependent on the context in which it is used, its relationship to other signs, and its environment.
Beyonce, Formation, 2016.