Home Communication Semiotics and Verbal Texts: How the News Media Construct a Crisis
Object, Representamen, Interpretant
Unlike de Saussure’s dyadic view, Peirce’s view of the sign was triadic: the element he acknowledged in addition to de Saussure’s conception was that of some real-world referent, which he termed the Object. This referent did not need to be material; it could also be concepts, theories or ideas (Peirce, 1931-1958). Further, Peirce did not presuppose an external reality in which the Object was a fixed, unalterable entity. To explain Peirce’s Object of the sign, Chandler (2007) uses an elegant analogy of the sign being a labelled box containing the Object—the point being that the Object is only knowable via the sign, remaining, as it does, hidden inside the box. In addition to the Object, Peirce considered that the sign consisted of a Representamen, or formal sign (broadly equivalent to de Saussure’s signifier), and the Interpretant (broadly equivalent to de Saussure’s signified). Peirce (1931-1958: 2.228) explains the Interpretant as follows: “[A sign] addresses somebody, that is, creates in the mind of that person an equivalent sign, or perhaps a more developed sign. That sign which it creates I call the interpretant of the first sign.” Cobley and Jansz (1999: 23) explain this as “the sign in the mind that is the result of an encounter with a sign”. The importance of this conception is that the “sign in the mind” is then open to further interpretation, creating a further Representamen and so on, in a process that Eco (1976: 69), with reference to the work of Peirce, Barthes and Derrida, calls “unlimited semiosis”, in other words, an endless and unfixable generation of meanings.
To use the example of BP: the BP crisis is conceived as the Object, or the “real-world” referent, the media representations are the sign or Representamen which stand for or “mean” the Object, and the Interpretant is the “sign in the mind” which is a result of our understanding of the media representation. We could conceive that the initial Interpretant in our collective mind from the media Representamen would be that of an oil rig explosion. However, our developing conception of the crisis might include the damage and destruction caused by the explosion in all its aspects, which might also call to mind other explosions, or indeed crises of different kinds, perhaps business crises, natural disasters and so on.
What does it mean to say that the crisis is the Object for this Representamen? It should be clear already that I do not claim that there is an objective reality of the events that the media reports are managing to describe more or less accurately, although this is not to deny the material consequences of loss of life, injury and destruction of the environment caused by the explosion. Apart from the question of objective reality, there is the question of scale and scope—what are the parameters of the phenomenon I wish to investigate? Butchart (2011: 291) alludes to the complexity of defining “events”.
In what does a happening consist in order for it to obtain the status of an object of knowledge? Is there a difference between a set of related occurrences and the identity of their concept? Is what happens distinct from what comes before it and everything else that codetermines it?
In the case of my research, a broad definition of the hidden Object is an aggregate of the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill, the reactions of participants to it and the crisis that BP found itself dealing with for many years. More specifically, it is the object[s] of discussion by the media that I find when I consider the terms “BP”, “disaster”, “crisis” and “oil spill”. This discussion surrounding the Object changes substantially, and this both describes and constitutes the changing “meaning” of the Object. In the way of unlimited semiosis it will become impossible to discuss the BP oil spill without reference to the web of discussions that have invested it with additional meaning, just as it is impossible to discuss, say, Nelson Mandela as “a man” without reference to the vast range of images, films and writings that constitute our concept of him. I will go on to hypothesise how the representation of events will develop beyond the time of my data sets, drawing on the ideas of Baudrillard (1994). In Baudrillard’s terms, representations at the present historical moment have come to have no relation to any reality whatsoever, but are pure simulacra. In my argument, I conceive that there is, in fact, an Object, albeit hidden and unknowable, and we move away from this Object and towards a simulacrum. In my research, I have endeavoured to trace the linguistic evidence of this movement.
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