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editorial
1. Sign Systems Studies: Volume > 49 > Issue: 3/4
Massimo Leone Introduction: Studying the ‘facesphere’
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articles
2. Sign Systems Studies: Volume > 49 > Issue: 3/4
Ugo Volli The transcendence of the face: A semiotic-linguistic path
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This paper starts with an examination of the terms use d to designate the face in different languages, in particular in Italian, comparing these with the definitions provided by some authoritative dictionaries as well as with their etymology. This exploration yields some remarkable results: firstly, it appears that the face is indeed a term that has a material meaning, but at the same time it is a social object; secondly, the importance of the communicative function emerges, which makes the face similar to the mask and in some ways to the arbitrariness of language. All this suggests that the philosophical status of the face is that of ‘transcendence’ which is a condition of that state of freedom that we attribute to ourselves and that can be defined as ‘human exception’.
3. Sign Systems Studies: Volume > 49 > Issue: 3/4
Simona Stano The face of health in the West and the East: A semio-cultural analysis
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Magazines, leaflets, weblogs, and a variety of other media incessantly spread messages advising us on how to achieve or maintain our health or well-being. In such messages, the iconic representation of the face is predominant, and reveals an interesting phenomenon: the “face of health” seems to be unattainable as such, and is generally represented in a differential way, that is to say, by making reference to its opposite – the “face of illness”, or at least of malaise. In fact, the face is crucial in the medical domain: since ancient times, face observation has played an essential role in diagnostic practices, both in Western medicine (which resorts to the concept of facies, intended as the distinctive facial expression or appearance associated with a specific medical condition, for the description of pathological states) and Eastern preventive and healing techniques (within which the so-called Mian Xiang, or ‘face reading’, is fundamental, and connects the medical sphere with other aspects such as personality, talents, and dispositions). Drawing on the semiotic analysis of relevant case studies extending from classical iconography to present-day digital mediascapes, this paper investigates the representation of the face of health (and illness) across time and space, specifically focusing on the analogies and differences between the Western and the Eastern semiosphere. To this purpose, it relies on both literature concerning the representation and understanding of the face and studies on medical sign systems and discourses.
4. Sign Systems Studies: Volume > 49 > Issue: 3/4
Gabriele Marino Cultures of the (masked) face
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What we generally regard as ‘the face’ should be semiotically understood not as something given and monolithic, but rather stratified – it is at least threefold: biological (face), physiognomic (expression), perceivable (visage) – and relational as it has to be put within a narrative in order to make sense. The face lies at the centre of a whole semiotic system, the form of life, revolving around the issue of identity (which the face – the visage, to be precise – embodies and still does not resolve). What we may call ‘the natural face’ is not, as common sense would suggest, the precondition of the ‘culturalized’ one (featured with modifications ranging from make-up and proper masks to surgery), but rather just one of the possible semiotic masks a person may choose to wear. At the same time, the mask does not have to be reduced to a deceptive device only (nor to be meant merely as a material object), being in fact at the centre of a more complex axiology. The classic veridictory square articulating the opposition between Being and Seeming may provide a suitable model for the semiotic square of ‘visageness’, so that we would have: Face, Disguise (the place of the mask proper), Fake, Anonymity. Based on these theoretical premises, the paper finally addresses popular music and outlines a provisional map of the pragmatics of the mask (subtractive vs. additive, ritualistic vs. continuous, material vs. virtual, mask as face vs. face as mask), as a suggestion for further studies.
5. Sign Systems Studies: Volume > 49 > Issue: 3/4
Remo Gramigna, Cristina Voto Notes on the semiotics of face recognition
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Perceiving and recognizing others via their faces is of pivotal importance. The ability to perceive others in the environment – to discern between friends and foes, selves and others – as well as to detect and seek to predict their possible moves, plans, and intentions, is a set of skills that has proved to be essential in the evolutionary history of humankind. The aim of this study is to explore the subject of face recognition as a semiotic phenomenon. The scope of this inquiry is limited to face perception by the human species. The human face is analysed on the threshold between biological processes and cultural processes. We argue that the recognition of likenesses has a socio-cultural dimension that should not be overlooked. By drawing on Georg Lichtenberg’s remarks on physiognomy, we discuss the critique of the semiotic bias, the association of ideas, and the mechanism of typification involved in face recognition. Face typification is discussed against the background of face recognition and face identification. We take them as three gradients of meaning that map out a network of relationships concerning different cognitive operations that are at stake when dealing with the recognition of faces.
6. Sign Systems Studies: Volume > 49 > Issue: 3/4
Devon Schiller The face and the faceness: Iconicity in the early faciasemiotics of Paul Ekman, 1957–1978
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Paul Ekman is an American psychologist who pioneered the study of facial behaviour. Bringing together disciplinary history, life study, and history of science, this paper focuses on Ekman’s early research during the twenty-year period between 1957 and 1978. I explicate the historical development of Ekman’s semiotic model of facial behaviour, tracing the thread of iconicity through his life and works: from the iconic coding of rapid signs; through the eventual turn from classifying modes of iconic signification using gestalt categories to classifying modes of producing iconic sign-functions using minimal units; to the role and importance of iconicity for the study of the facial expression of emotion, both in terms of the similarities between iconic and analogue signs as well as the differences between facial coding and linguistic signification. In this intellectual genealogy, I argue not only that Ekman relied extensively upon conceptualizations and terminologies from semiotic thought for the creation of the Facial Action Coding System (FACS), but also that the question of iconicity is the pivotal problem across the many discoveries and innovations in what I term ‘Ekmanian faciasemiotics’.
7. Sign Systems Studies: Volume > 49 > Issue: 3/4
Emanuela Ferragamo Marlen Haushofer’s The Wall and the post-nuclear culture of the face
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The intertwining of landscape and face belongs to human spatial epistemology: as suggested by Matteo Meschiari, primitive humans used to orientate themselves in landscape through recognition of facial patterns. By reflecting upon Marlen Haushofer’s novel The Wall (Die Wand), the article aims to question the semantic of the “face of the landscape” in the wake of an imagined nuclear apocalypse that leaves behind a cat, a cow, a dog, a woman and a wall. The wall transcends the boundaries between human and other-than-human: in terms of Roberto Marchesini, it creates a somato-landscape – a hybridization of inner and outer landscapes typical of post-human awareness. Finally, such a landscape culminates in the dismissal of the pre-apocalyptic culture of the face: faces no longer function as a means of recognition.
8. Sign Systems Studies: Volume > 49 > Issue: 3/4
Bruno Surace Semiotics of the pornographic face: From traditional porno to Beautiful Agony
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Today’s pornography constitutes a semiotic laboratory capable of meticulously describing some characteristics of the cultures from which it comes and for which it is intended. In it, the role of the face is preeminent and assumes relevance both from a diegetic and a formal point of view. A face which makes itself a sign and is articulated in a dialectic between the syntagmatic and the paradigmatic axis, finding expression as an aspectual device, establishing a peculiar semiotic procedure of absentia in praesentia, and highlighting an eminently enunciative dimension of the textual genre. Thus a facial semiotics of pornography becomes to all effects a cultural semiotics, which through the exploration of a transversal genre – both in its mainstream and more niche actualizations – produces significant results in defining how cultures of the face, including extrapornographic ones, delineate themselves. The aim of this article is to verify this peculiar facial semiotics through a case history that stretches from traditional to contemporary pornography, also analysing the “facial pornography” website beautifulagony.com and the visual works of some contemporary artists.
9. Sign Systems Studies: Volume > 49 > Issue: 3/4
Antonio Santangelo Culturally significant symbolic faces: For a sociosemiotics of faces in films
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Every now and then when watching a movie, we come across faces in which we recognize a significant value, because they represent some important cultural models we use to assign meaning to our experience of the world. By way of example, I will discuss the faces of the protagonists of two recent films, Abdellatif Kechiche’s La vie d’Adele. Chapitres 1 & 2 (2013; English title Blue Is the Warmest Colour) and Leonor Serraille’s Jeune femme (2017), comparing them with the faces of the protagonists of some older movies, such as Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson’s Shrek (2001) and James Cameron’s Avatar (2009). I will argue that the way in which the faces are portrayed is similar to the narrative structure of the stories of the characters they belong to, and that the signs and narrative structures used to construct the discourses about the world in those films are at the same time similar to those of two important cultural models of what it means to be young men and women in our times. As these cultural models are different, yet interconnected, I will argue that the most meaningful faces in cinema change due to the transformation of the cultural models they derive from and that a sociosemiotic method based on a structuralist vision of culture can help identify the most culturally significant symbolic faces on screen, and elsewhere.
10. Sign Systems Studies: Volume > 49 > Issue: 3/4
Silvia Barbotto Art, face and breathscape: From air to cultural texts
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We consider breath as a vast prospect that includes actions and traces of them, that builds images and texts, that involves the human being and the extra-human context; we call this great scenery ‘breathscape’. We then study how breathscape interacts with the human apparatus of the face, both giving rise to signs, but also giving rise to a liminal zone of extremely intriguing interpretative processes on a mereological scale. How and where do the territory of breath and the body interact? Which processes of signification do they give rise to? And which signs are created in their phenomenal and semantic encounter? Art is certainly the most appropriate language for studying this process, as well as for letting opacities emerge and exploring outstanding contrasts. There are various concepts of ‘breathscape’ that, grounded in different cultures, are immediately associated with ancient and contemporary philosophies. As a reverberation from a semiotic interaction and through the discretization and identification of semantic fields relevant to the concerned scenario, and introducing textuality, a phenomenon seen as a crystallization of the transition between outer text (the text of reality) and text (subject/object), we consider those visual texts which are crossed by a common faculty that is both descriptive and inventive: by approaching some inferential and cultural regimes and analysing their specific enunciative practices, we then contribute to their renovation. The texts related to the practices as part of the narratives intrinsic to cultural semiospheres underline the insatiable vastness of epistemological content to be dealt with, and the functional reductionism of the corpus is only a first approach to the field that is intended to shed light on the general panorama and to stimulate subsequent debate and insights.
11. Sign Systems Studies: Volume > 49 > Issue: 3/4
Martín Cuitzeo Domínguez Núñez Faces in the pre-Hispanic rock art of Colombia: Semiotic strategies, visual semiospheres, and gestures
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This article analyses the sign systems or semiotic models that make up the meaning of a double face or mask drawing in the pre-Columbian rock art of Colombia, also discussing two human figures with depicted faces associated with the main picture. The sample of rock art was detected on the walls of the Chicamocha Canyon at the Mirador de Barcenas site in the Santander Department in Northeast Colombia. Its origin is attributed to the Guane chiefdom. We hold as a central argument that this face and its gestures were part of a sign system or visual semiosphere that spread along the banks of the Chicamocha Canyon. However, the image shared some semiotic models and visual communication strategies with societies that inhabited areas in central Colombia located hundreds of kilometers away from the site studied. We support this claim because the forms, the use of the space in the images, and the gestures of a hieratic character appear both in the faces of the petroglyphs of the Huila Department as well as in some pre-Hispanic gold masks from the Cundinamarca region. The images of the rock art faces were analysed using a visual semiotic model based on the suggestions of the Mu group and analyses by Felix Thurleman and Jean Marie Floch. The analysis was complemented by Jacques Fontanille’s proposal for the levels of semiotic relevance, with Juri Lotman’s concept of the semiosphere employed as a key concept.
12. Sign Systems Studies: Volume > 49 > Issue: 3/4
Søren Vigild Poulsen Face off – a semiotic technology study of software for making deepfakes
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Deepfakes, an algorithm that transposes the face of one person onto the face of another person in images and film, is a digital technology that may fundamentally alter our belief in visual modality and thus presents alarming consequences for an image-centric culture. Not only are these face-translations now so advanced that it is virtually impossible for people to tell that they are fake – this technology is also becoming accessible to laypersons who, with little or no computer skills, can use them for all kinds of purposes, including criminal intentions like revenge porn and identity theft. It is therefore timely and crucial to explore the semiotic potential of deepfakes. This paper presents a semiotic technology perspective, i.e., the study of technology for meaning- making that is an emergent field in social semiotics, to report on findings from an ongoing study of how deepfake software is designed and used as a semiotic resource in erotic and political contexts. The paper advances the argument that the software is able to appropriate all signifiers of the face and their cultural history. Consequently, the semiotic operations of this technology prepare the ground for the problematic perspectives of synthetic facial imagery. On this basis, the paper calls for a critical awareness of taking visual representations of current events at face value and considers how deepfake technology is embedded in unsound sharing practices of visual artefacts that tamper with the rich meaning potential of the face.
13. Sign Systems Studies: Volume > 49 > Issue: 3/4
Federico Biggio Augmented facets: A semiotics analysis of augmented reality facial effects
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Augmented reality facial effects represent a new trend in social media communication based on ‘short forms’. The article proposes a tripartite analysis: a semiotic analysis of digital facial effects used to empower the natural users’ faces; a deconstructionist analysis of Spark by Meta, one of the major software applications to create such effects and, finally, a critical reflection on the practices prescribed by Spark and the stereotypical aesthetics of augmented selfies. The conclusion states that such forms of augmented reality effects must be conceived not as oriented to the cognitive improvement of users’ performance but rather as forms of users’ empowerment and self-awareness.
14. Sign Systems Studies: Volume > 49 > Issue: 3/4
Kristian Bankov Face and trust: A semiotic inquiry into influencers, money, and amygdala
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After the cultural explosion of Web 2.0, digital culture reveals an apparently semiotic paradox associated with the incredibly widespread use of images of faces, while at the same time the reason to trust in the authenticity of these faces is constantly declining. This is because graphic technology has made the sophisticated manipulation of images both possible and easy. After a review of the existing semiotic models and considerations of trust, I am proposing a new approach which emphasizes the value-generating properties of trust by analogy with the money sign, seen as “trust inscribed”. Research from the neurosciences supports the hypothesis that the trustworthiness of the face is judged pre-reflexively and primordially. This, therefore, means that a trustworthy face is a premise for more successful communication than an untrustworthy one, notwithstanding the object of discussion and the cultural context. An example concerning social media influencers serves to show that in the internet-dominated globalizing culture, trustworthy faces are a multipurpose communicative asset that makes a difference.
15. Sign Systems Studies: Volume > 49 > Issue: 3/4
Vincenzo Idone Cassone Gotta face ‘em all: Pokémon, Japanese animated characters, and the emergence of playful visual animism
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As a result of technological innovations and new cultural practices, the contemporary mediasphere is increasingly populated by digital(ized) faces. The phenomenon is not limited to human faces, but includes a vast universe of fictional animated faces, variously called ‘characters’, ‘mascots’ or ‘kyara’. In Japan, while certainly not new, kyara have been spreading thanks to globalization, digitalization and media-mix strategies. Through the connection between visual design, fictional narratives and socio-cultural consumption, kyara can be considered semiotic figures of in-betweenness, key symbolic mediators in the Japanese mediascape. Their anthropomorphic face design mediates the cultural boundaries between the human and the non-human, the animate and the inanimate, nature and culture. Furthermore, their post-modern narratives mix inspiration from the past and the present, from myths to science fiction. Lastly, they involve an encyclopedic reworking between fiction and reality, mythical references and secularization, between the domains of seriousness and playful make-believe. The article aims to explore the semiotic dimensions of kyara in contemporary Japan, with emphasis on their logic of representation and cultural outcomes. These will be investigated through the analysis of the Pokemon franchise, which will make it possible to describe the emergence of new semiotic patterns of ‘playful visual animism’ in the process of media facialization of everyday life.
16. Sign Systems Studies: Volume > 49 > Issue: 3/4
Peter Mantello Fatal portraits: The selfie as agent of radicalization
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For the modern-day jihadist, the digital self-portrait or, more specifically, battlefield selfie is a popular tool for identity building. Similarly to the selfies taken by non-violent practitioners of self-capture culture, the jihadist selfie represents an alternative to the Cartesian formulation of a unitary and indivisible self. Rather, it is a product of social relations and performative actions, constituted in dialogue with others through very specific socio-cultural frameworks and expectations. However, unlike its non-violent Doppelganger, the expectations of this dialogue are centred around a larger political agenda which actively seeks to reformat collective memories of imperial Islamic conquests and co-opt religion as a way to impose a moral order on its violence. Importantly, the battlefield selfie allows the jihadist easily to traverse the boundaries between two seemingly opposing belief systems. Although there exists a wealth of scholarship of self-capture culture, image sharing sites and micro-celebritism, their pervasive influence and practice on battlefield is understudied. This article draws from the personal histories of key Islamic extremists who were both lionized and demonized as a result of their battlefield micro-influencer practices. Today, however, the same individuals can achieve internet fame by participating in self-capture culture – posting selfies, videos or blogging. In other words, never before has a soldier’s public communication been so personal yet collective.
17. Sign Systems Studies: Volume > 49 > Issue: 3/4
Elsa Soro Urban-human faces and the semiotic right to the city: From the USSR propaganda machinery to the participatory city
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Now that the usage and meaning of urban spaces have been dramatically challenged by the global pandemic, several debates and reflections are going on around the manner in which cities – both as concerns the public and the private spaces – have been designed. The article observes how “urban-human face” representations have served different models of urbanity across times and cultures. Using a framework deriving from semiotics of culture, according to which the city represents a model of the world, the article attempts to interpret how portraits of faces have been modelling the city through different urban faciality mechanisms. The focus is on a sample of what we call ‘urban-human faces’, ranging from Soviet propaganda posters to the digital #selfiecity project. The expression refers to series of representations that bring together the city and the face. It can be argued that both the city and the face, produced at a specific historical and cultural moment, with their figurative and plastic elements, deploy the struggle for the city ownership and authorship. Nonetheless, the commensurability of the city and the face can be just based on the fact that both semiotic configurations represent an excess with the help of cartographic reproduction (the city) and the portrait (the face), respectively. A city can be represented by a face to the extent to which it is also multifaceted as a polylogue. On the basis of such instable commensurability, the article will ultimately attempt to bring together the semiotics of the face and the semiotics of the city.
reviews and notes
18. Sign Systems Studies: Volume > 49 > Issue: 3/4
Ekaterina Velmezova, Kalevi Kull, Ene-Reet Soovik Jaan Kaplinski and his contacts with the Tartu-Moscow School of Semiotics
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Jaan Kaplinski (1941–2021), Estonian poet, essayist and public intellectual, sadly passed away earlier this year. To commemorate him, we publish some excerpts from a conversation with him that was recorded in 2018 and in which, among other topics, we also talked about Kaplinski’s relationship with semiotics and his personal contacts with eminent scholars of the Tartu-Moscow School.
19. Sign Systems Studies: Volume > 49 > Issue: 1/2
Lauri Linask, Inesa Sahakyan, Aleksei Semenenko Editorial: Anticipation and change
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20. Sign Systems Studies: Volume > 49 > Issue: 1/2
Morten Tonnessen Anticipating the societal transformation required to solve the environmental crisis in the 21st century
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This article introduces an ecosemiotic approach to the two great challenges facing humanity in the 21st century: solving an escalating environmental crisis, while also safeguarding and further improving human living conditions. An ecosemiotic framework for the study of societal transformations is presented and political and other normative aspects of what I call transformative semiotics are discussed. This envelops socio-cultural and socio-ecological developments framed in terms of umwelt theory and Deep Ecology. In the long run, developments in human ecology as reflected in our changing relations to non-humans are expressed in the umwelt trajectory of humankind. The question of how the environmental crisis can best be solved is therefore tantamount to the question about what direction the human umwelt trajectory should take in this century. I outline different plausible umwelt scenarios for human ecology in the 21st century, focused on business-as-usual, ecomodernist and Deep Ecology scenarios. In a concluding discussion on technology and sustainability, the scenario development eventually includes a distinction between flexible and inflexible development paths.