Semiotics Semionaut

Making Sense with…

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Photo courtesy of Thierry Mortier

What makes a semiotician tick? SEMIOVOX’s Josh Glenn has invited his fellow practitioners in the field of commercial semiotics, from around the world, to answer a few revealing questions.


Stockholm…

SEMIOVOX

When you were a child/teen, how did your future fascination with symbols, cultural patterns, interpreting “texts,” and getting beneath the surface of daily life manifest itself?

THIERRY MORTIER

It didn’t, I’m a late bloomer. I had fascinations like any other kid, except I was more of a digger than my contemporaries when I dug my teeth into something. More, there needs to be more — and there always tended to be more. An intuitive nerdy drive to collect info on whatever subject caught my fancy.

SEMIOVOX

Describe your first encounter(s) with the theory and practice of semiotics.

THIERRY MORTIER

Semiotics was a minor subject in university when I studied languages. During my Erasmus-year in France the professor of Semiotics started his first lesson with a quote from the surrealist poet Paul Éluard: “La terre est bleue comme une orange” (The earth is blue like an orange). I’ve been hooked on semiotics ever since.

SEMIOVOX

How did you find your own way to doing semiotics?

THIERRY MORTIER

Studying all the different schools. The courses at uni were nothing more than introduction courses. After leaving uni I finally started studying. I bought Winfried Nöth’s Handbook of Semiotics and began there. Each school or thinker Nöth wrote about gave me another 2–3 books to read. I surfed the semiotic net old-school style, from one book to the next. The books I couldn’t afford I found in different university libraries. Who knew you didn’t have to be enrolled in university to get a library card there?

SEMIOVOX

What are the most important attributes of a good semiotician?

THIERRY MORTIER

  • Understanding what semiotics is: a method of uncovering the relations of perception that trigger action. 
  • Refraining from making assumptions, even when they seem obvious — incidentally that also means taking all the time necessary.
  • Keeping the inner child alive and kicking. Question everything! Why is that? How does that even work? Who’s behind this? Where did that come from? Is this a paying gig? 😉

SEMIOVOX

What three books about semiotics have you found the most useful and enlightening in your own work?

THIERRY MORTIER

I already mentioned Nöth’s handbook of semiotics as a beginner’s guide, but once past that the books I keep going back to are:

  • The Collected Papers of C.S. Peirce. You can find it online. Like most I started reading people that were explaining or working on Peirce’s work and that was great, Peirce is dense, you can use help entering the work… but after a while you just want to check the source yourself to see if your own conclusions and interpretations match what you’ve been handed. Get your own bias, don’t use another’s. And you can easily supplement it with the digital companion to Peirce. 
  • John Deely’s Semiotic Animal. Crystal-clear and immensely actionable. I thoroughly enjoyed Four Ages of Understanding too — but that’s simply feeding that nerdy drive to know more.
  • Frederik Stjernfelt’s Natural Propositions: The Actuality of Peirce’s Doctrine of Dicisigns. Don’t think I have any other book in my personal collection that has more post-its sticking out of it, except perhaps Peirce’s Theory of Signs by T.L. Short — that one comes close, really close. Both Stjernfelt and Short share their deep understanding of Peirce in such a manner that it’s like being handed a key to open the next level.

SEMIOVOX

When someone asks you to describe what you do, what is your “elevator pitch”? How do you persuade a skeptical client to take a chance on using this tool?

THIERRY MORTIER

Semiotics describes how we perceive the world — not how the world is (which would be physics).

I don’t persuade skeptical clients to use tools, I ask them to tell me what they believe they need, then ask them questions to explain why they actually believe that.

SEMIOVOX

What specific sorts of semiotics-driven projects do you find to be the most enjoyable and rewarding?

THIERRY MORTIER

Challenging ones. 

I didn’t get into semiotics to do projects, they are but byproducts, the necessary evils that come from the larger context (i.e., putting bread on the table), which makes it extremely hard to answer the question. I enjoy the bread, not so much the implicit justification of the system behind.

That said, I do feel like an academic outside of the academy and personally get the most reward from figuring out theoretical stuff — e.g., like why the current visualizations of the irreducible triadic sign just don’t do the trick. And, commercially, give me the opportunity to bring semiotic insights and methods to overthrowing the prevailing power structures and my joy will jump through the roof! 

SEMIOVOX

What frustrates you about how semiotics is practiced and/or perceived, right now?

THIERRY MORTIER

Semiotics is a catch-all for very different approaches. There’s no way of knowing what kind of semiotics you’re getting when it comes to commercial semiotic practices. But for that matter, this observation tends to be valid for most of our endeavors — whether it’s contemporary art or theoretical mathematics. Highly diverse schools of thought in all our quests for knowledge, which is quite exemplary for what semiotics is actually about. All of which makes it difficult to answer the question.

Frustrations tend to be people-related, as made obvious by the formulation “practiced and/or perceived,” which are both people activities in this context.

In terms of changes: I’d like to see the field break through to the surface… and I genuinely think we are doing just that! Eco said that semiotics would be the philosophy of the 21st century and I believe him. 

SEMIOVOX

Peirce or Saussure?

THIERRY MORTIER

Peirce. (Why? Not so-sure…) I’m joking of course, it’s not a contest — and, more importantly, they are not mutually exclusive! We need to know both Peirce and Saussure, as well as Greimas, von Uexküll, Kristeva, Petrilli, Ponzio, Sebeok, Kull, Favareau, Stjernfelt, Deely, Short…

When Saussure’s work is described as having a two-part sign as its base it reflects the description not the actual work. I do however agree with the label of “the minor tradition of semiotics” when talking about Saussure. Too much needs to built on top of his work. Saussure is a giant but a minor giant, and I personally believe the entire Saussurian tradition can be found inside Peirce’s. Peirce is massive, massive on a gigantean scale. Mathematician, chemist, logician… his semiotic work is but a fraction of what he left behind and all of it is connected. We get multiple lifetimes of insights from Peirce. It does, however, take some effort to glimpse the riches in his writings.

SEMIOVOX

What advice would you give to a young person interested in this sort of work?

THIERRY MORTIER

Go for it! 


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