What are Codes?
Daniel Chandler’s book Semiotics: The Basics offers a crash course on a varied, intricate, and seemingly impenetrable discipline. In his second edition (2007), he writes a chapter focusing on the concept of codes as they relate to theories of semiosis. Chandler defines codes as “set[s] of practices familiar to users of the medium operating within a broad cultural framework” (148). According to Chandler, “Codes organize signs into meaningful systems which correlate signifiers and signifieds through the structural forms of syntagms and paradigms” (147). Signs that are grouped on “the basis of commonality and membership” (Kim 57) are considered paradigms, while signs that are specifically combined with intent, much like a sentence, are syntagms. Paradigm and syntagm are the vehicles that allow signs to carry meaningful messages and thus allow for communication between people.
While paradigmatic and syntagmatic structures aren’t the only ways to understand codes, Chandler emphasizes their role throughout his chapter. Meanwhile, in The Quest for Meaning, Marcel Danesi elaborates on “associative structures,” which analyzes how abstraction and metaphors encode meaning. Danesi additionally claims that codes have three major components: representationality, interpretability, and contextuality. In other words, when signs combine into codes to represent something, that representation contains a message which can be interpreted by anyone who is “savvy” with the code, and finally, the message is embedded within particular social contexts. Codes come in a variety of types and each author presents their own taxonomy. Chandler’s overview of codes categories includes social, textual, and interpretative codes. Danesi, on the other hand, focuses his taxonomy on social, mythic, knowledge, and narrative codes. Kyong Liong Kim, finally, addresses logical, aesthetic, and social codes. While each taxonomy varies, the underlying principle is that codes undergird domains across time and space that influence social structure and organization.
Codes affect and even regulate all sorts of behavior, from dress and attire to determining what’s appropriate to say in a given social context. Many social codes are learned early in life to the point where “having internalized such codes at a very young age, we then cease to be conscious of their existence. Once we know the code, decoding it is almost automatic and the code retreats to invisibility” (Chandler 166). Danesi makes a similar connection when he writes, “once the ‘objects’ have been encoded by language (or some other code) they are perceived as ‘necessary’ or ‘natural’ discoveries of reality, not just as convenient signs” (79). Both Chandler and Danesi contend with perceptual codes and how these codes might map onto theories of epistemology and ontology. Addressing the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, both authors explore the notion that people who are exposed to certain codes within a culture tend to be predisposed to “seeing” the world a certain way. Though the strong version of the hypothesis is not usually accepted, there seems to be a connection between language and its influence in shaping cultural codes. Considering codes operate “under the surface,” so to speak, in that they are usually tacit and interpreted automatically, they have a great power to shape perception.
How do codes operate in practical contexts?
Chandler offers a fascinating example of codes at work when he describes how film makers use the “eyeline match” technique in editing film (168). Essentially, the technique is based on sequencing shots so that something a character is gazing at off-screen will be represented in the following shot. Using this gives the movie a sense of continuity, which enhances its “realism” for the viewer. This, in turn, helps render the editing “invisible” because viewers already watch these movies with an expectation (through genred reading practice) that these shots will take place. As Chandler aptly puts it: “The seamlessness convinces us of its realism, but the code consists of an integrated system of technical conventions (166). Other editing techniques, as described in this MIT film lexicon, all make up a code for understanding how movies are constructed from a production viewpoint. However, the “cinematic editing code has become so familiar to us that we no longer consciously notice its conventions until they are broken. Indeed, it seems so natural that some will feel that it closely reflects phenomenal reality and thus find it hard to accept it as a code at all (Chandler 168). Thus, audiences become accustomed to interpreting film in certain ways, based on how the codes for its production are “naturalized”, which can affect their interpretations of the text and subsequent social interactions.
Leveraging the Conceptual Crowbar
Chandler’s provides his most poignant metaphor of the chapter when he writes: “Semiotics offers us some conceptual crowbars with which to deconstruct the codes at work in particular texts and practices, providing that we can find some gaps or fissures which offer us the chance to exert some leverage” (173). This particular hypothesis on how codes function reminded me of The Matrix movie series. The major premise behind the films (spoiler alert) is that humans are actually “plugged into” a virtual world created by artificially intelligent machines. Neo, the main character, initially is conditioned to see a reality that represents life in America in the year 2000. However, as Neo meets people who live outside the Matrix (in the “real” world) and begins to develop his own powers, he finally gains the ability to “see the code.” He no longer sees the representation of the world the machines transmitted; instead, he literally sees the green symbols that comprise the Matrix program. As Chandler notes, “Understanding what semioticians have observed about the operation of codes can help us to denaturalize such codes by making their implicit conventions explicit and amenable to analysis” (173). Danesi adds that “although human beings are indeed shaped by the cultural system in which they are reared, they are also endowed with creative faculties that allow them to transcend it and even change that very system” (95). Like Neo, we’re born into a specific culture with codes that we have no control over; yet, we still possess the power to change and modify the codes as they are not static, but dynamic. I wonder, however, if there are some codes that are so seemingly “natural,” and so entrenched that changing them would upend the entire social structure?
Chandler, Daniel. Semiotics: The Basics. Routledge, 2007.
Danesi, Marcel. The Quest for Meaning: A Guide to Semiotic Theory and Practice. University of Toronto Press, 2007.
Kim, Kyong Liong. Caged in Our Own Signs: A Book About Semiotics. Greenwood Publishing Group, 1996.