What this article is about

This article is about semiotics—the study of meaningful signs. Top-down semiotics or big semiotics as I characterize it here is a stage or phase of semiotic analysis in which signs are interrogated in terms of their social and epistemological context. Meaningful semiotic signs are exchanged among consumers and brand owners as a form of social currency and so it is to be expected that they seem to reveal something about the society that uses particular coins. At the same time, those signs contribute to, helping to disrupt or maintain, certain versions of reality which are in a system with competing versions, this system having a conspicuously ideological flavor. In the pages that follow I argue that big semiotics—analysis at the level of society, culture, or ideology1—is a necessary, though hazardous, aspect of producing a worthwhile semiotic analysis. The rest of this article unfolds as follows.

The first section, "The rewards and hazards of big semiotics," sets out the reasons why commercial projects in semiotics need big sociological and political thinking to make an impact. It also highlights the attendant hazards of a sociological or ideological line of inquiry: there is the risk of becoming unclear about the difference between semiotics and sociology, and there are inherent philosophical problems attached to mixing modernist and postmodern (or structuralist and post-structuralist) approaches. The second section, "How Barthes and Baudrillard tackled the problem of society," takes two examples of influential thinkers in semiotics—Roland Barthes and Jean Baudrillard—and asks how they tackled the philosophical problems of using semiotics to decode society.