Revolution Lullabye

January 1, 2009

Hodge and Kress, Social Semiotics

Hodge, Robert and Gunther Kress. Social Semiotics. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1988.

The authors, who developed a theory of usable (or critical) linguistics in their 1979 book Language as Ideology, wrote Social Semiotics to address two limitations in their linguistic theory: the lack of focus on “the primacy of the social dimension in understanding language structures and processes” and the inattention to the meanings inherent in non-verbal messages (such as in aural, behavioral, and visual codes.) Their study, which begins with an overview of twentieth-century linguistic theory, explaining the structuralist foundations of Saussure and Peirce, highlights the importance of social context in the meaning-making process. That context includes ideology, the current logonomic system, history, and social relationships. Drawing from Durkheim (and Marx), Hodge and Kress point out that there are two parts of every social message – power and solidarity – and show, through examples ranging from sub-population accents and antilanguages to the Biblical debate over the pronounciation of “shibboleth” and from classic Davy Crockett and Two-Gun Lil cartoons to the traditional Greek familial relationships showcased in Sophocles’ plays, that every meaning-making act is a social strategy to position one person or group in power and authority over another, who confirms their power through by going along and acting in solidarity with the rest of society. For both social control and an understanding of truth and reality, there is an interdependence between those in power and those being controlled.

There is a good appendix with definitions of Hodge and Kress’s key terms and concepts from pages 261-268.

Quotable Quotes

“Meaning is produced and reproduced under specific social conditions, through specific material forms and agencies. It exists in relationship to concrete subjects and objects, and is inexplicable except in terms of this set of relationships” (viii).

“Genres only exist in so far as a social group declares and enforces the rules that constitute them” (7). What is captured in genres is the relationship between the participants.

“Meaning is always negotiated in the semiotic process, never simply imposed inexorably from above by an omnipotent author through an absolute code” (12). Social semiotics is interested in what happens (expected and not) in the action between participants.

“Every semiotic act has an ideological content” (40).

“Every semiotic structure inevitably exists in space and time” (163). You cannot ignore the temporal dimension, for with history, you can understand large-scale structures that inform the meaning of small, individual semiotic acts.

Notable Notes

Jokes are a reversal of the logonomic code – they are broken rules, subversive, oppoistional discourse, drawing from Halliday’s antilanguage¬†(78)

Logonomic code – a set of rules about meaning-making and communication, based on an entire system of thought, which orders society by explaining who may make and receive messages and knowledge under what circumstances and with what behaviors (4)

Key words: formality, informality, constraint, energy, open, close, accents, T form/V form, truth, reality, modality, genre, logonomic, ideology, message, semiotic, act, participants, power, solidarity, social construction, system, history, context, control, style, grammar, metasign, group, cohesion


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