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Literary Criticism. Class #3. “Semiotics, Structuralism, and Television” from Channels of Discourse (1996) by Ellen Seiter. I. The Sign (pp. 138-143). Saussure. Charles S. Peirce. 1839-1914, American philosopher

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“Semiotics, Structuralism, and Television”

from Channels of Discourse (1996)

by Ellen Seiter


I. The Sign

(pp. 138-143)

charles s peirce
Charles S. Peirce
  • 1839-1914, American philosopher
  • “A sign is either an icon, an index, or a symbol” (Peirce on Signs, 239).
  • Where the sign resembles its referent, e.g. a picture of a ship, a map, a road-sign for falling rocks
  • Where the sign is associated . . . with its referent
  • They rely on a material connection between signifier and signified
  • e.g. smoke as a sign of fire, clouds as a sign of rain, symptoms of a disease, photographs
  • Where the sign has an arbitrary relation to its reference, e.g. language
group activity
Group Activity
  • Apply Peirce’s theory of signs to FIVE examples below. What kinds of signs are they?
food for thought
Food for Thought
  • What are some of the similarities and differences between Saussure and Peirce?

Seiter notes “Semiotics reminds us that with nonfictional television, no less than with its fictional counterpart, we are dealing not with referents but with signs” (142).

  • Any examples of your own?

Please review our discussion on Barthes in Class #2.

  • Seiter argues that “One of the goals of semiotic analysis of television is to make us conscious of the use of connotation on television, so that we realize how much of what appears naturally meaningful on TV is actually historical, changeable, and culturally specific” (144).

Seiter’s examples:

    • The color of light (pink for femaleness, white for goodness)
    • Music (minor chords and slow tempos signifying melancholy, solo instrumentals signifying loneliness)
    • Photographic technique (soft focus signifying romance, hand-held cameras signifying on-the-spot documentary)

Steiter looks at TV as a communication system and identifies five channels (codes?) of communication: image, voice, music, sound effect, and graphics (logos, borders, frames, diagrams, and computer-animated materials). (146)


IV Structuralism

(pp. 147-154)


Seiter cites Hodge and Tripp’s analysis of Fangface as an illustration of the structuralist approach.

  • “Hodge and Tripp argue that cartoons—widely considered on of the lowest forms of television—are surprisingly complex.” (147)



Whenever Fangs sees the moon, a picture of the moon, or something that resembles the moon, he transforms into FANGFACE. He is unaware that he is FANGFACE. Sometimes when he changes back, he remembers something that he did as FANGFACE, but he just dismisses it as a weird dream that he had. He is a coward and runs whenever there's danger.


“Hodge and Tripp find that the nature/culture axis is a highly significant one in the world of Fangface” (151).


“One can look . . . at the larger field of children’s literature, animated television, and commercial culture and find that the nature/culture division, or the blurring of the two, is a central characteristic of children’s media.” (151)


“The figures of the werewolf in Fangface and Splinter (who is simultaneously a Japanese Ninja master and a rat) in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are products of different historical moments and different racial ideologies. Does the use of binary opposition nature/culture to analyze these cartoons obscure important differences by being too universalist?” (151)


“Terry Eagleton has remarked that one of the primary drawbacks to structualist research is that it is ‘hair-raisingly unhistorical’” (152).


“A historical approach to the animated television series would also allow us to contextualize and explain the kinds of changes that can be observed in different series from the 1970s to the 1990s . . .” (152).


“For if signs are conventional, they are also changeable. But semiotics remains silent on the question of how to change a sign system. Stubbornly restricting itself to the text, it cannot explain television economics, production, history, or the audience” (153).


In conclusion, Seiter suggests that we think of semiotics and structuralism “as a kind of useful exercise for making sure that we know our object before venturing out into other models of study” such as “questions regarding audience activity and the play of television as discourse” (153).