Semiotics Semionaut

Making Sense with…

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Photo courtesy of Myriam Bouabid

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.


Tunis…

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?

MYRIAM BOUABID

Seated in a music class at age thirteen, the musical scale in front of me seemed to gradually fade away, to dilute. Refusing categorically to wear glasses, I was engulfed in the world of stimuli, trying to orient myself in relation to the object before its meaning. Splashes of color represented the primitive state of meaning, where the signifier was of little importance, the type remained elusive, and the referent was insignificant. This experience confronted me with an essential question about my relationship with the space around me. A blurry landscape, where the outlines of objects and beings merged within a helpless gaze, aroused an unquenchable quest for meaning. (I finally relented and started wearing contact lenses.) Yet, even with the lenses, the mystery of the reflection in the mirror persisted. Was it really me reflected or a distorted/composed image? Later, when I delved into Peirce’s theory on signs as substitutes for other entities, it resonated with my adolescent experience. It ignited my fascination with “distorted” worlds and perspectives in literature and cinema, driving my pursuit of meaning by challenging the lenses through which these works are created.

SEMIOVOX

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

MYRIAM BOUABID

A university course in the fall of 2017, introduced me to the insight that signs observe us, call out to us. Semiotics captivated me from the start — particularly its interdisciplinary nature. It is not restricted to a single domain and encompasses various fields. It explores meaning that engages all our senses. And it takes us on an exhilarating intellectual journey that reveals the different layers of meaning in the world around us.

[French novelist and Oulipo member] Georges Perec in his 1974 essay “Species of Space” deeply influenced my thinking. Perec seeks to subject space, especially that of our daily lives, to an unusual descriptive process, encouraging the reader to perceive what is usually overlooked: space is not a priori given in experience, but instead a discursive construction in constant evolution.

My curiosity was also stimulated by Groupe μ [the collective pseudonym under which a group of Belgian 20th-century semioticians wrote a series of books], who asserted that something is always happening even when nothing is happening; for me, this emphasized the depth of the sign, even in moments of absence or silence.

Studying semiotics stimulated my curiosity to understand the processes of creation, interpretation, and communication of meaning in culture, society, and living nature, from fundamentals to applications.

SEMIOVOX

How did you find your own way to doing semiotics?

MYRIAM BOUABID

I’m driven to study and teach semiotics (I’m a doctoral student in linguistics specializing in semiotics) because it offers tools for understanding the contemporary world. Here in Africa, where this discipline remains largely untapped, teaching semiotics is so important. To fill the gap in African university curricula, I have undertaken to conceive and offer courses dedicated to this discipline for students in graphic arts, advertising, audiovisual, and literature. I am committed to providing the conceptual and methodological tools necessary to analyze and interpret the signs and symbols that populate our cultural and social environment.

In the current context marked by various social and economic crises in Tunisia, the application of semiotics, particularly through discourse analysis, holds crucial importance. This approach enables the deciphering of political, media, and social discourses to better grasp the underlying dynamics and identify the communication strategies employed by political and social actors. By scrutinizing the signs and symbols embedded in public discourse, it becomes possible to unveil social representations, stereotypes, and ideologies that shape collective perceptions. Moreover, semiotic discourse analysis contributes to deconstructing dominant narratives and amplifying the voices of marginalized groups, offering a critical and enlightened perspective on sociopolitical issues.

SEMIOVOX

What are the most important attributes of a good semiotician?

MYRIAM BOUABID

  • Intellectual curiosity. A curious semiotician explores the multiple facets of culture and communication, examining each sign with ongoing interest.
  • Analytical ability. A good semiotician excels in breaking down signs and symbols, thereby highlighting their depth and intrinsic complexity.
  • Interdisciplinary knowledge. Since semiotics intertwines various fields such as linguistics, psychology, philosophy, and anthropology, a competent semiotician must navigate through these different fields of knowledge with ease.
  • Creativity. A skilled semiotician establishes unexpected connections between signs, thereby opening up new perspectives and offering innovative interpretations.
  • Patience and perseverance. Semiotic analysis can often be challenging and complex, requiring sustained endurance in the quest for meaning.
  • Open-mindedness. A good semiotician embraces different perspectives and challenges their own preconceptions, thereby allowing unrestricted exploration.
  • Effective communication crowns this set of qualities. A semiotician must be capable of articulating their ideas and analyses clearly and persuasively, both in writing and orally, thereby facilitating the efficient dissemination of their discoveries and reflections.

SEMIOVOX

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

MYRIAM BOUABID

  • Umberto Eco’s Les limites de l’interprétation. Through his erudite analyses and stimulating reflections on classical and contemporary authors, Eco vividly illustrates how signs and symbols are interwoven in the construction of meaning. His inquiries into the distinction between the use and interpretation of a text encourage us to reflect on how we approach and understand literary works.
  • Jean-Marie Klinkenberg’s Précis de Sémiotique générale. [The Belgian semiotician] Klinkenberg delves into the mechanisms of communication, shedding light on the complexity that lies beneath its seemingly natural process. By emphasizing the centrality of meaning in human communication, he provides readers with a thorough understanding of semiotics, the science that explores this phenomenon. Klinkenberg makes semiotics accessible to beginners as well as experts in the field.
  • Martine Joly’s L’image et son interprétation. [The French semiotician] Joly provides essential insights into the interpretation of visual and audiovisual messages. By exploring the psychological activity of converting and retaining data involved in this interpretation, the author sheds light on a still mysterious process. She emphasizes that analyzing the messages themselves is not enough to understand what the message recipient comprehends and retains, since every “text” elicits types of adherence often related to “belief”; ultimately, the viewer appears to be more autonomous than manipulated and more seduced than victimized.

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?

MYRIAM BOUABID

When someone asks me what I do or study, I always have a moment of hesitation: whether to say that I study literature/linguistics or semiotics. I prefer to explain that “I work on boundaries, drawing from the discipline of semiotics!” I explain that semiotics studies signs and symbols and their role in communication and meaning. I emphasize the importance of the discipline in understanding the world around us, whether in the realms of art, advertising, literature, architecture, or daily life. I portray semiotics as a powerful tool for deciphering hidden meanings, analyzing communication strategies, and interpreting visual and textual messages.

When it comes to persuading a potential client, I emphasize that semiotics offers a methodical and rigorous approach to understanding and influencing consumer perceptions, attitudes, and behaviors. I present concrete examples of how semiotic analysis has been successfully used in similar projects, showcasing the positive outcomes in terms of relevance, impact, and commercial success. I also underscore the added value of semiotics as a tool for differentiation and positioning in the market.

SEMIOVOX

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

MYRIAM BOUABID

In the contemporary context of migration, delving into the semiotics of space becomes especially pertinent. This approach allows for a nuanced understanding of the intricate interactions between migrants and their physical and social environments. Semiotics of space illuminates the processes of space reappropriation, adaptation, and negotiation by migrants within urban settings, and sheds light on the power dynamics and socio-cultural challenges that ensue. By studying migrants’ spatial practices, we gain a deeper understanding of the challenges they face and can envision more inclusive and culturally respectful solutions.

I’m also fascinated by biosemiotics. This expansion from traditional semiotics to biosemiotics reflects a growing understanding of the complexity of meaning-making processes in nature, transitioning from human-made structures to networks of communication and interaction found within living ecosystems. I’m intrigued by how interactions among different organisms within an ecosystem are mediated by signals and symbols, and how these interactions contribute to the regulation and stability of the ecosystem as a whole.

Visual semiotics greatly attracts me, too. Analyzing visual signs, whether present in art, advertising, cinema, or digital media, offers a fascinating insight into how images communicate meanings and ideas; such anaysis can enrich our appreciation of visual art, strengthen our critical analysis of media, and enhance our skills in visual communication.

Literary semiotics, finally, is another source of inspiration. Studying literary semiotics unveils the multiple levels of meaning present in literary texts, going beyond the literal sense to explore hidden meanings, recurring motifs, and narrative structures. This approach allows us to appreciate the richness and diversity of literary works on a deeper level.

SEMIOVOX

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

MYRIAM BOUABID

Despite its theoretical richness and practical application potential, semiotics is often relegated to the background or completely ignored. In Tunisian universities, for example, semiotics is often marginal or absent from academic programs. Beyond the academic context, I am also frustrated by the fact that semiotics is not sufficiently integrated into various fields where it could bring significant added value. Whether in marketing, advertising, design, literature, cinema, or politics, semiotics offer powerful tools for deciphering the signs and symbols that shape our social and cultural interactions. However, its potential often remains underutilized, leading to superficial communication strategies and projects lacking depth and relevance.

By encouraging better integration and greater recognition of semiotics, we could pave the way for a deeper, more nuanced, and more thoughtful approach to communication and meaning in all aspects of social and cultural life.

SEMIOVOX

Peirce or Saussure?

MYRIAM BOUABID

“…two antithetical geniuses, Peirce and Saussure, completely unaware of each other and roughly around the same time, conceived the possibility of a science of signs and worked to establish it…”

Émile Benveniste

For those seeking a thorough analysis of signification processes in a broader and more inclusive context, Peirce’s approach may be preferred. Conversely, for those prioritizing a more structural and precise understanding of signs within the linguistic framework, Saussure’s approach might be preferable. Rather than exclusively choosing between Peirce and Saussure, it is more prudent to consider them as complementary theorists whose ideas can be integrated and combined to enrich our understanding of semiotic phenomena.

SEMIOVOX

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

MYRIAM BOUABID

I advise my students to remain persistent and passionate despite the challenges they may face. While access to comprehensive bibliographies and necessary information may be limited in the Tunisian context, this should not discourage them; instead, it should inspire them to be creative and resourceful in their research.

I also encourage my students to establish contacts with other semiotics researchers and professionals, both locally and internationally. By participating in conferences, workshops, and academic events, they can share ideas, form collaborations, and access additional resources.

Finally, I advise mhy students to remain open to opportunities for learning and professional development that come their way. Whether through internships, research projects, or community initiatives, each experience can enrich their knowledge and strengthen their skills in the field of semiotics.


MAKING SENSE WITH… series: MARTHA ARANGO (Sweden) | CHRIS ARNING (England) | CHRIS BARNHAM (England) | AUDREY BARTIS (France) | ANDREA BASUNTI (England) | HIBATO BEN AHMED (France) | MACIEJ BIEDZIŃSKI (Poland) | MYRIAM BOUABID (Tunisia) | KISHORE BUDHA (England) | MARIANE CARA (Brazil) | GIULIA CERIANI (Italy) | BECKS COLLINS (England) | INKA CROSSWAITE (South Africa) | DORA JURD DE GIRANCOURT (France) | NATASHA DELLISTON (England) | PANOS DIMITROPOULOS (China) | ROB DRENT (Netherlands) | VLADIMIR DJUROVIC (China) | JOËL LIM DU BOIS (Malaysia) | WHITNEY DUNLAP-FOWLER (USA) | ROMÁN ESQUEDA (Mexico) | MALCOLM EVANS (England) | MICHELLE FAN (Taiwan) | NICK GADSBY (England) | PETER GLASSEN (Switzerland) | JOSH GLENN (USA) | PAULINA GOCH-KENAWY (Poland) | STEFANIA GOGNA (Italy) | EUGENE GORNY (Thailand) | SAMUEL GRANGE (France) | GISELA GRIMBLAT (Mexico) | AIYANA GUNJAN (India) | FRANCISCO HAUSS (China) | EMILY HAYES (England) | YOGI HENDLIN (Netherlands / USA) | HANNAH HOEL (New Zealand) | KATRIN HORN (Austria) | CHARLES HOWARTH (Finland) | IVÁN ISLAS (Mexico) | SARAH JOHNSON (Canada) | LOUISE JOLLY (England) | GEMMA JONES (Netherlands) | CHRISTO KAFTANDJIEV (Bulgaria) | SEEMA KHANWALKAR (India) | KAIE KOPPEL (Estonia) | LUCIA LAURENT-NEVA (England) | RACHEL LAWES (England) | CHARLES LEECH (Canada) | ELINOR LIFSHITZ (China) | WILLIAM LIU (China) | RAMONA LYONS (USA) | KATJA MAGGIO (Netherlands) | LUCA MARCHETTI (France) | SÓNIA MARQUES (Portugal) | MAX MATUS (Mexico) | CHIRAG MEDIRATTA (India / Canada) | CLIO MEURER (Brazil) | ELODIE MIELCZARECK (France) | THIERRY MORTIER (Sweden) | RAHUL MURDESHWAR (India) | SERDAR PAKTIN (Turkey / England) | MARIA PAPANTHYMOU (Greece / Russia) | VIJAY PARTHASARATHY (USA) | GABRIELA PEDRANTI (Spain) | JAMIN PELKEY (Canada) | MARTA PELLEGRINI (Italy) | GAËLLE PINEDA (France) | KRZYSTOF POLAK (Poland) | ALEXANDRA ROBERT (France) | GREG ROWLAND (England) | KARIN SANDELIN (Sweden) | CARLOS SCOLARI (Spain) | COLETTE SENSIER (England) | HAMSINI SHIVAKUMAR (India) | GIANLLUCA SIMI (Brazil) | TIM SPENCER (England) | TIM STOCK (USA) | XIMENA TOBI (Argentina) | DIMITAR TRENDAFILOV (Bulgaria) | ALFREDO TRONCOSO (Mexico) | MARIE LENA TUPOT (USA) | ADELINA VACA (Mexico) | JENNIFER VASILACHE (Switzerland) | ANTJE WEISSENBORN (Germany) | COCO WU (Singapore / China) | & more to come.

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