Category Archives: Semiotics

Quote of the Day: Umberto Eco

“Thus I rediscovered what writers have always known (and have told us again and again): books always speak of other books, and every story tells a story that has already been told.”

― Umberto Eco, Postscript to the Name of the Rose

Review: Changing Signs of Truth: A Christian Introduction to the Semiotics of Communication @ivpacademic @adriannawright

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Those of us who have learned to read between the lines, to understand that there or symbols of a greater truth which abound, that our sacraments, teachings and other tools of the Church serve us more than the momentary rites which they too often become, have waited patiently for such a book, and indeed, a certain modern recognition, something Crystal L. Downing brings.

Much as been written about semiotics, with the researcher apt to find many introductions to the discipline available to him or her, but none that I know of from the Christian perspective, or rather, how Christians specifically can make use of semiotics. This is not merely a “this is it” book, but a “this is why and how” book. We have forgotten, almost as a whole, the use of signs in the Gospels, specifically John and his intermittent Signs Gospel. Semiotics is not a discipline all to itself, but entertains connections to other fields as well, notably linguistics and mimetics. The field is not absent of pioneers and adventurers, many of them familiar to us already. John Locke identifies the discipline at the beginning of the 17th century. Ferdinand de Saussure codified the first bible, so to speak, for semiotics. Umberto Eco and Daniel Chandler, in the recent modern era, continued to push the discipline further and develop, as Eco more roundly did, semiotics for everyday use.  And then there is Peirce. But, before them, and sometime after the Signs Gospel, Augustine unknowingly combined semiotics and Christian doctrine to produce his doctrine of the sacraments. Building on this rich history and interdisciplinary approach, Downing has given us, both modern semioticists and Christians, an evolved push.

There is no better book available to the Christian audience, nor likely to be anytime soon, to teach them that we have to evolve our communication and our understanding of why this is important than this singular volume. Through word plays that while some may find a bit too much Downing brings to light the rhythmic possibilities of using words to communicate, to actually communicate, concepts and signs. What words would you use to describe a book about the philosophy of words? Whatever I do use, they will simply not be enough. We are talking about a view that utilizes the best in linguistic studies, the philosophy of truth, signs, and even the Trinity. Everyone comes down to the way in which we interpret the reality around us.

How can Christians make use of the brightest minds in linguistics and the philosophy of semiotics? Downing takes us through the maze of how these verbal doctors have introduced us to a higher level, perhaps esoteric, way of thinking about that which goes into our mind, comes out of our mouth, and is perceived by others. She instigates a new way of thinking about sins, and uses the Trinity to do so, in that Downing has masterfully realigned the gifts that we give and take when dealing with others, calling upon the Holy Spirit as the interpreter. Before she gets there, however, she takes us through the history of thought in this area, and in what may be a surprise for some, finds truth even in those who “rightly pass for an atheist.” Further, why do we need to worry about representation, gifts, and exchanges when we are sharing the Gospel? Maybe this is not a book for those who have yet to understand that our words are mere symbols we inherit and in turn (re)create or those who believe that simply “preaching the Gospel” is enough. I suspect, however, that it is exactly for them. Yes, linguistics and semiotics may involve some tongue twisting along the way, as sometimes her attempt to allow us to read phonetically does in our head, but we have to remember that John uses the Word for Jesus. Evangelicals often call Scripture the “word of God.” Yet, we do not think about what words mean.

Because of that, we often forget that words have etymologies and in fact, as Downing reminds us, so do our theologies (words have futures too). Yet, we secure them, from this side, as if they are always unchanging and needed protection of the dastardly deeds of evildoers, while those on the other side (those who formulated the theologies) would ask us why we haven’t progressed them further. This is always the underlying point of the book, a point which like a volcano finally explodes and consumes the remaining chapters of the book. How do we, after acknowledging that words are pictures and sometimes, those pictures aren’t what we mean, transport the message of the Gospel? To the Muslims, the Trinity is polytheism. To the Christians, it is the best way, after long consideration, to explore the relationship between the Father and the Son and the Spirit. To some, it is a pointless exercise in futility. Downing takes this (among other Christian doctrines such as the Eucharist and atonement theories) doctrine and shows how to re-present Christ with the Father, recognizing that our words carry with them baggage that we may not know.  Her writing is, I suspect, significantly part of the book. Make no mistake, that she is a master wordsmith, so to suggest that her images are too lengthy or tedious is to, I believe, miss some of the things she is trying to get at. Don’t miss the images she is trying to present. For her readers who do not know her in person, we are introduced to her through the written word. Perhaps this reviewer is making too much of it, but her becoming known through the book helps to take her end goal to a rather enlivening level.

Of the thousands of books I’ve read thus far, there are only a few that surpass the momentary need or give us more than a glint of greatness, and only a bare minimum of the few that move past this level are actually deserving of the pride of place given to them. This has to be one of those that deserve more than a passing glance or a generational glare. This is one of the rare books in modern theological publishing that will outlast its author by any considerable time. She gives a history of semiotics, from the earliest days to the current trends including semiotics in cultural and political theory as well as religious linguistics. Through it all, she constantly reminds you of what she has written already, and moves your forward gently enough. This is not just an introduction to semiotics, but a deeply insightful and theological book about wording the Word.

An Excerpt from “Changing Signs of Truth” @ivpacademic

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Guess what? Just about the most anticipated book (except for mine) is about to be released. IVP-Academic had put out an excerpt

Changing Signs of Truth by Crystal L. Downing

Second Languages prevent emotional responses

Reading a nasty word in a second language may not pack the punch it would in your native tongue, thanks to an unconscious brain quirk that tamps down potentially disturbing emotions, a new study finds.

When reading negative words such as “failure” in their non-native language, bilingual Chinese-English speakers did not show the same brain response as seen when they read neutral words such as “aim.” The finding suggests that the brain can process the meaning of words in the unconscious, while “withholding” information from our conscious minds.

via The Body Odd – Brains of bilingual readers repress negative words.

You know I love me some science and language and how the brain works.  This has something to do with semiotics, that’s for sure.

Also, this is a big reason to teach in the native language and to continuously update bible translations.

HT – Via LNB via FB

Blogging my Book: Interlude for a post on Language

Language, the idea of language, rather, plays a role in my book, somewhat, as well as my theological understanding of the world. Recently, and I have yet to read it, a book was published which suggests that language is not universal, not biological, but rather cultural. NPR has a story up about it:

There’s no language gene.

There’s no innate language organ or module in the human brain dedicated to the production of grammatical language.

There are no meaningful human universals when it comes to how people construct sentences to communicate with each other. Across the languages of the world (estimated to number 6,000-8,000), nouns, verbs, and objects are arranged in sentences in different ways as people express their thoughts. The powerful force behind this variability is culture.

In the article is a reference to a study done which is equally important:

Talk of linguistic universals has given cognitive scientists the impression that languages are all built to a common pattern. In fact, there are vanishingly few universals of language in the direct sense that all languages exhibit them. Instead, diversity can be found at almost every level of linguistic organization. This fundamentally changes the object of enquiry from a cognitive science perspective. This target article summarizes decades of cross-linguistic work by typologists and descriptive linguists, showing just how few and unprofound the universal characteristics of language are, once we honestly confront the diversity offered to us by the world’s 6,000 to 8,000 languages. After surveying the various uses of “universal,” we illustrate the ways languages vary radically in sound, meaning, and syntactic organization, and then we examine in more detail the core grammatical machinery of recursion, constituency, and grammatical relations. Although there are significant recurrent patterns in organization, these are better explained as stable engineering solutions satisfying multiple design constraints, reflecting both cultural-historical factors and the constraints of human cognition.

Linguistic diversity then becomes the crucial datum for cognitive science: we are the only species with a communication system that is fundamentally variable at all levels. Recognizing the true extent of structural diversity in human language opens up exciting new research directions for cognitive scientists, offering thousands of different natural experiments given by different languages, with new opportunities for dialogue with biological paradigms concerned with change and diversity, and confronting us with the extraordinary plasticity of the highest human skills.

I think that the more literate we become as a society, and the more focused on technical writing, we are losing our ability to actualy hear the language of what is being said.

I think that language is a cultural concept, but culture is driven by human biology. Anyway, good study.

Religious Leaders and their Symbolic Garments

Enclothed cognition means that clothes can exert influence on the way the wearer feels, thinks, and behaves through the symbolic meaning associated with the clothes. Many pieces of clothing carry a symbolic meaning: For example, the robe of a judge signifies justice, an expensive suit signifies power, and a white lab coat signifies a scientific focus and attentiveness. Therefore, to the extent that a religious leader associates his or her symbolic garment with faith, dedication, and assuming a responsible leadership role in the religious community, the leader may indeed be more effective at carrying out his or her tasks and inspiring followers when wearing this kind of attire. In the end, our research suggests that the specific effects of wearing a symbolic garment will depend on the idiosyncratic value that the wearer attributes to it.

How Important Might It Be for Religious Leaders to Wear Symbolic Garments? – Science and Religion Today.


Speaking of the power of music….

After listening to Bruce Springsteen and the White Stripes, the students handed most of the money to white people.

‘Rock music is generally associated with white Americans, so we believe it cues white listeners to think about their positive association with their own in-group,’ said Heather LaMarre, an assistant professor of journalism and mass communication at the University of Minnesota.

‘That was enough for them to show more support for a student group representing mostly whites.’

After listening to Top 40 pop such as Gwen Stefani, Akon and Fergie, the students divided money more equally between white people, black people and latinos.

via Does listening to rock make you racist? Five minutes of Bruce Springsteen makes students favour white people over others | Mail Online.

I’m not sure that 138 students can actually be called a realistic sampling. Further, I’m not sure the results can be called racism.

Safe and Sound, Appoggiatura, Semiotics, and the Gospel

This is the theme song for the new movie, The Hunger Games… involving an Appalachia of the Future:

I remember tears streaming down your face
When I said, I’ll never let you go
When all those shadows almost killed your light
I remember you said, Don’t leave me here alone
But all that’s dead and gone and passed tonight

Just close your eyes
The sun is going down
You’ll be alright
No one can hurt you now
Come morning light
You and I’ll be safe and sound

Don’t you dare look out your window

Darling, everything’s on fire
The war outside our door keeps raging on
Hold onto this lullaby
Even when the music’s gone

Just close your eyes
The sun is going down
You’ll be alright
No one can hurt you now
Come morning light
You and I’ll be safe and sound

Just close your eyes
You’ll be alright
Come morning light,
You and I’ll be safe and sound…

Anyway, it got me to thinking, especially when I read this story which relates to the singer Adele:

You know the feeling. It’s one like this: “Your hair’s standing up on end, shivers going down your spine, a lump coming into your throat, even tears running down your eyes,” says John Sloboda, a professor of music psychology at London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Sloboda has studied physical reactions to music and found that one musical ornament in particular triggers a strong emotional reaction.

It’s called an appoggiatura, from the Italian word “to lean.” And while it’s tough to define, it’s not unlike a grace note. It’s sometimes dissonant and resolves into a main note. (here)

Call me whistful, but I think that all of this plays together, in my opinion, with performance, semiotics, Liturgy, and why we must take the Gospel verbally before we read it.

More, or a little, on Semiotics and Mimesis @ivpacademic

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I hear that I will be able to interview Crystal L. Downing… But, even if not… I wanted to touch on what I mentioned earlier… that mimesis and semiotics are connected at the hip.

First, if I may,

There is a difference between image and sign. There are many kinds of signs according to the degree of motivation and different kinds of images according to the degree of schematisation. These differences do not entail a transition from image to sign or from sign to image. There are many ways in which image and sign work together: the many forms of entwining of semiosis and mimesis. The difference between image and sign sheds a new light on the difference between art and science or philosophy

And then this one

The concept of mimesis is not very often used in the contemporary semiotic dialogue. This article introduces several views on this concept, and on the basis of these, mimesis is comprehended as a phenomenon of communication. By highlighting different semantic dimensions of the concept, mimesis is seen as being composed of phases of communication and as such, it is connected with imitation, representation, iconicity and other semiotic concept…

Then, go here.

I can’t wait to read her book!

(Say, IVP – how about a book on mimetic criticism?)

Book Announcement: Changing Signs of Truth: A Christian Introduction to the Semiotics of Communication @ivpress

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As one who believes that Mimesis underlies everything, the study of semiotics is essential. I’ll try to connect the two at a later date… (after all, look at her other books) this is just the book announcement:

What signals are you sending when you share the gospel? The importance of signs for communicating truth has been recognized throughout the ages. Crystal L. Downing traces this awareness from biblical texts, through figures from church history like John Wycliffe and William Tyndale, to more recent writers Samuel Taylor Coleridge and C. S. Lewis. In the nineteenth century, this legacy of interest in the activity of signs brought about a new field of academic study. In this book, Downing puts the discipline of semiotics within reach for beginners through analysis of the movement’s key theorists, Ferdinand de Saussure, Charles Sanders Peirce, Mikhail Bakhtin and others. She then draws out the implications for effective communication of the gospel of Jesus Christ within our shifting cultural landscape. Her fundamental thesis is that “Failure to understand how signs work–as effects of the cultures we seek to affect–inevitably undermines not just our political and moral agendas but, worse, the gospel of Jesus Christ.” Writing with humor, clarity and flare, Downing lucidly explains the sophisticated thinking of leaders in semiotics for nonexperts. Of value to all those interested in communication in any context, this work will be of special interest to students majoring in communications or English or to students in evangelism and preaching courses at the undergraduate and graduate level.

Hath No Man Biblical Literacy?

Some time ago, apparently to satisfy an intellectual masochistic streak, I subscribed to the e-mail newsletter of the American Family Association. This evening, I received a rather spectacular gem of a press release.

From Coram Deo Studios and Lionsgate comes No Greater Love, a feature film about a broken marriage, a sovereign God and a life-changing love.


No Greater Love is a beautiful depiction of how loving God and loving others can bring the unlovable to Christ. In this film the church reaches out in love and with truthful correction. It’s a visible reminder that God is in control and His love is compelling.

>Sigh of unsurprised amusement<

The AFA and Coram Deo are clearly oblivious as to the source of their title. You all know the verse:

“Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”

The type of love referenced in the verse is far from matrimonial; instead, the ‘greater love’ is the kind of literal sacrificial love exhibited by God when he played “I’ll kill mine if you’ll kill yours” with Abraham.

Being untrue to source material is nothing new for Hollywood films, but for an ostensibly Christian studio to release a Christian film and display such an obvious disregard for the semiotics of their title is…par for the course when it comes to “Christian” films.