This category contains 74 posts

A brief history of signs

“As his speech deteriorated, Hawking learned to make every sentence count” (597) wrote theoretical physicist Kip Thorne. A complete history of speech synthesis and semiotic systems has yet to be written. I formulated the following reflection before news broke of Stephen Hawking’s death this week. Signs in time Plato was suspicious of signs (or names). … Continue reading

What is pansemiotics?

Pansemiotics has not yet made it into the Oxford English Dictionary. The term crops up several times in Winfried Nöth’s expansive 1990 book, The Handbook of Semiotics. The term provides a means of describing the theological view that “the whole universe became [in the Middle Ages] signs of divine revelation” (382), as in the Old Testament statement, … Continue reading

When is a building like a bang?

There’s some theoretical support for the idea that a building is a kind of shock, or at least belongs in the same semiotic category as a sudden noise emitted from a machine. Articles by philosopher and semiotician Elisabeth Walther-Bense (1922-2018) are in German — unfortunately, not yet available in English translation, or even online in German … Continue reading

Shadow of a doubt

In his book In Praise of Shadows, novelist Junʼichirō Tanizaki recaptures what is otherwise lost under the glare of modernity. As indicated in the title, he favours the half light, shadows and darkness of recesses, verandahs and outhouses, and with them the patina and ambiguity of materials worn over by time: old wood, stone, moss, … Continue reading

Diagrammatics 101

Drawings, sketches and illustrations belong to the interpretative arts. Then there are diagrams. As iconic signs, diagrams make fewer claims in the realms of creativity and imagination, but they do have to be interpreted. Diagrams are in the company of charts, graphs and tables the authors of which extract the salient features of a phenomenon, show … Continue reading

Peirce decoded

Whether or not you agree with C.S. Peirce’s semiotic system, there’s something about his diagrams. A search on Google Images for “Peirce sign categories” reveals an industry of diagrammatic interpretations and reinterpretations that would appeal to anyone with an interest in the cryptographic. I’m going to add to that collection some further abstract diagrams, or … Continue reading

The power of ten

Ten is a good number. Ten of anything implies that the set is complete and finished. This, at least, is the account given by scholar Indra McEwen of the Pythagorean legacy on which the architectural theorist Marcus Vitruvius Pollio (c. 70-15BC) drew in writing his Ten Books of Architecture. McEwen argues that the division of … Continue reading

Semiotic shock

In his 1903 article “Nomenclature and divisions of triadic relations, as far as they are determined,” C.S. Peirce outlined 10 classes of signs based on 3 combinations of 3 terms. Whatever his classifications tell us about categories of signs and meanings, there’s a seductive geometry to his formulation, and some anomalies. His three semiotic terms … Continue reading

What’s the point of symbols?

Symbols are getting a bad name. More precisely, symbols of bad things are gaining more airtime than symbols of good things — lately. Take for example walls. Last month Andrew Solomon wrote in the Guardian “Walls are concrete symbols of exclusion, and exclusion is seldom a diplomatic move.” There’s the prospect of a wall at Calais to curb … Continue reading

Whatever happened to architectural semiotics?

Few would deny that architecture communicates, and in that sense is a language, or at least like a language. As pointed out by the philosopher and semiotician Umberto Eco architecture does something else as well: it functions. So a substantial tiled roof not only communicates protection from the elements, but functions to provide such protection. Occasionally the two become … Continue reading

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