Seminar: Signs and Space, 14 May 2010


Fri 14 May, University of Jyväskylä


Time & venue: 12-16, L 209 (Building L, Seminaarinmäki)

This half-day seminar will explore the ways in which the meanings and effects of signs depends on, or is influenced by, their spatial position and their movement in space. Such effects and influences have been largely overlooked in traditional semiotics, and the work of Ron Scollon & Suzanne Wong Scollon and Gunther Kress has broken ground in investigating these material dimensions of sign emplacement and circulation.

In this seminar, Professor Jan Blommaert (Tilburg University/University of Jyväskylä), Dr Suzanne Wong Scollon (Seattle), and Professor Gunther Kress (University of London) will discuss recent theoretical reflections on this topic, focusing on the agentive effects of the material context on meaning effects of signs.

The seminar is open to everyone and no specialised background is required. Registration by Wed, 5 May: multilingualism@jyu.fi.



12.15-12.30  Introduction/Welcome

12.30-13.15  Jan Blommaert: Semiotic and spacial scope: towards a semiotic materialism

13.15-14.00  Suzanne Wong Scollon: Whose Agency? Signs, Place and Transgressive Action

14.00-14.30  Coffee break

14.30-15.15  Gunther Kress: Interest and agency, fixing and framing: the motivated sign

15.15-16.00  Discussion



Jan Blommaert

Semiotic and spatial scope: towards a semiotic materialism

Two elements push us towards a materialist approach towards signs in space: one, the fact that signs in space have a semiotic scope, i.e., they produce specific (not general) meanings relevant to their spatial location; two, the fact that the scope of such meanings is spatially restricted and not general. These two elements are common-sensical, yet they have generally been overlooked in treatments of signs in space. The work of the Scollons and of Gunther Kress offers us leads into this awareness. It is on the basis of this work that we can see how signs in space demarcate space as a normative environment. That is, they produce space as a regulated and 'policed' environment, and suggest that space, once demarcated in this sense, is an agentive (not passive) force in the organization of social conduct. The latter point was suggested in Goffman's 'Behaviour in public places', and we are now in a position to add a mature, materialist theory of space to Goffmanian sociology.


Suzanne Wong Scollon

Whose Agency? Signs, Place and Transgressive Action

As Jan Blommaert has suggested, space is an agentive force in the organization of social conduct. But who is it that gives space its regulated, 'policed' character? Does the mounted photograph of Mao Zidong give authority to the dicta of his little red book? When the president of the European parliament appeals to the agents of a sign's removal to replace it and religious leaders call it a 'desecration' and an 'attack on the memory of the Holocaust', what actino is the sign regulating and who is the agent? A small boy on a bicycle with training wheels gleefully poses looking upward, a sign above on the wall above a a picture of a bicycle inside a red circle with a diagonal line across the bike, another sign above readint 'NO RIDING; FINE $1000'. The photographer, the boy's father, apparently is playing with the agentive force. Can a nonliterate three-year-old be fined for sitting on a training bike? What is the scope of the sign? Is the boy's expression giving or giving off transgression? Social performance as transgressor is constructed. These photos illustrate the central tenet of geosemiotics, that the meaning of the visual sign (including language inscribed on the surface of a space) depends on the physical location in which it is emplaced and the way it is used by people interacting in that space. Transgressive action depends on the indexability of the material world.


Gunther Kress

Interest and agency, fixing and framing: the motivated sign

The notion of 'space' has not been central for me; yet, when I am forced to 'confront' it, as here, I know that it is a constant and insistent presence in my thinking and writing. I am aware that I constantly 'locate' the things I am talking about. In the book Reading Images, Theo van Leeuwen and I introduced the term 'provenance' to describe how signifiers (the French Horn in orchestras of the 18th Century, eg) drag meanings from their 'place of origin' 'into' a present site and event, where its potentials for meaning are made newly specific. When I am in the doctor's surgery, by dint of generation, gender, social affiliation, I bring a whole slab of sedimented social history into a social and physical space which is equally saturated with meanings of such kinds, not to speak of the junior female doctor who is doing the consultation: meanings of one site bump into the meanings of co-present sites: new meanings-as-signs result from the participants. At the back of my thinking is the attempt to get beyond the twin entrenched (spatial) notions of denotation and connotation ('centre' and 'umbra' of meaning) which come from an era of stability, of (at least assumed) fixed social arrangements and spatial settled-ness, notions in no way useful for understanding the present. In trying to shape a better understanding of the specificity of meaning in dynamic social environments, I do use the notion of space and of time - this social space here (even when it is physical / geographical) and now (as history and as the moment of the making of the sign), fixed for a moment in space by the interest of the maker of the sign.