Introducing Social Semiotics

By Theo Van Leeuwen | Go to book overview

5

Discourse

As we have seen in part I, social semiotics explores two closely related issues: the material resources of communication and the way their uses are socially regulated.

The material resources of communication may be physiological or technical. Physiological resources include our vocal apparatus and the muscles we use to create the facial expressions, gestures and other physical actions that realize 'non-verbal' communication. Their use is always socially regulated. The voice, for instance, can produce a wide range of sounds. But in most situations it is called on to produce only speech sounds, and only such speech sounds as are appropriate to the given situation, and to the age, gender, class and social role of the speakers involved. The same applies to 'non-verbal' communication. From an early age we observe and imitate the socially permitted or desirable forms of non-verbal communication, and are often explicitly instructed in them -'Look at me while you speak', 'Don't put your hands in your pockets', 'Sit straight', etc. This is not to say that there is no room for freedom, for an element of individual style in the way we communicate. There is, though more so in some situations than in others. But communication always takes place within - or sometimes in opposition to - the socially defined boundaries of specific situations. If we stray outside them, eyebrows will be raised, and if we persist, there may be other, more serious consequences: we will no longer 'fit' into this particular situation.

Technical resources extend the potential of our physiological resources. We can communicate not only with our voice but also with musical instruments; not only with facial expressions and gestures but also through the clothes we wear and the way we groom our bodies. This even includes communication through sensory modalities over which we have no conscious articulatory control, such as when we use fragrances to communicate something about ourselves or about particular spaces. Finally, we have developed technologies to preserve our communicative acts - for instance, writing and recording - and to relay or distribute them across distances - for instance, telephony and broadcasting. The use of these resources is also socially regulated, for instance through the question of who is given access to them and in what roles - as producer, consumer, or, with today's more interactive media, something in between - and through the 'languages' people have developed to regulate their use, or which, in the case of new media such as email, we can see developing in front of our eyes.

The subject of social semiotics, therefore, is the coming together of these two aspects of semiotic resources, their physical or technical nature - and the semiotic potentialities this affords - and the social regulation of their use - together with its history. This means that social semiotics is by and large about the how of communication. How do we use material resources to produce meaning? But there can be no 'how' without a 'what'. We need to look at 'meaning' itself as well. This I will do through an account of 'discourse'.

-93-

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