Signs and Symbols: Selfies and Superorganisms

In class, we will be discussing signs and representation. It is another approach to thinking about how meaning is produced using signs. For Pierce, this is about the relationship between and objects (or referent) and sign (or representamen) and a meaning (or interpretant.) This model can be used to understand a wide variety of cultural phenomena. Here are two that might help us to start talking about these in more details. The first asks us to think about the relationship between icons and symbols, while the latter raises some questions that are close to what Peters talks about with regard to communication with Aliens.


It has been claimed that more photos are now being taken any year in the 21st century than were taken in the entire 19th century. A number of these photos are photos of one self. Although the tradition of photographic self-portraits goes back to the 19th century, the rapid proliferation of selfies is a new phenomena. At one level these are always photos of the same thing – you! – but are they always showing the same thing? What are the semiotics of the selfie?

In this article from the New York Times, a journalist reminds us that:

People are wrestling with how they appear to the rest of the world. Taking a photograph is a way of trying to understand how people see you, who you are and what you look like, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

If we are wrestling with how to represent ourselves, is there a grammar of poses, camera positions, props, effects, etc, that we use to craft the meaning we want people to take with them when they see us? This article is an art historians take on ‘selfies’ from the 19th century. And another that looks at some photos of Lewis Powell, who was involved in the Lincoln assassination.

Portrait (detail) of Lewis Powell (1865).

A close up of a portrait of Lewis Powell (1865).


Peters draws our attention to the difficulties of communicating with beings that are radically different from us. He uses the example of aliens to remind us that there is not reason to think that an alien species would communicate in ways remotely similar to us. This is the theme of the film Solaris (2002). A group of astronauts encounter a massive living organism in the form of a ‘living ocean,’ but can’t understand what the organism is or its way of communicating as it is so radically different in scale and interests from a human (think about what you might say to a fruitfly that it would understand.) The organism communicates by means of memories, and here we see the lead character, Kelvin, communicating with the planet, who has taken the form of his dead friend.