Photography as simulation: notes on vocabulary

The sign:
(Pierce): What is a sign? It is anything which in any way represents an object. This statement leaves us the difficulty of saying what “representing” is. Yet it affords help by pointing out that every sign refers to an object.
A sign does not function as a sign unless it is understood as a sign. It is impossible, in the present state of knowledge, to say, at once fully and precisely, and with a satisfactory approach to certitude, what it is to understand a sign. Consciousness is requisite for reasoning; and reasoning is required for the highest grade of understanding of the most perfect signs; but in view of the facts adduced by Von Hartmann and others concerning Unconscious Mind, it does not seem that consciousness can be considered as essential to the understanding of a sign. But what is indispensible is that there should be an interpretation of the sign; that is that the sign should, actually or virtually, bring about a determination of a sign by the same object of which it itself is a sign. … Thus there is a virtual endless series of signs when a sign is understood; and a sign never understood can hardly be said to be a sign.
I define a Sign as anything which is so determined by something else, called its Object, and so determines an effect upon a person, which effect I call its Interpretant, that the latter is thereby mediately determined by the former. My insertion of “upon a person” is a sop to Cerberus, because I despair of making my own broader conception understood. (see Commens, here.)

The signifier
Saussure proposed a dualistic notion of signs, relating the signifier as the form of the word or phrase uttered, to the signified as the mental concept. It is important to note that, according to Saussure, the sign is completely arbitrary—i.e., there was no necessary connection between the sign and its meaning. This sets him apart from previous philosophers, such as Plato or the Scholastics, who thought that there must be some connection between a signifier and the object it signifies. ((reference))

Saussure offered a ‘dyadic’ or two-part model of the sign. He defined a sign as being composed of:

  • a ‘signifier’ (signifiant) – the form which the sign takes; and
  • the ‘signified’ (signifié) – the concept it represents.

Semiotics differs from linguistics in that it generalizes the definition of a sign to encompass signs in any medium or sensory modality. (Wikipedia, (Wikipedia))

The arbitrariness of the sign is a radical concept because it proposes the autonomy of language in relation to reality. The Saussurean model, with its emphasis on internal structures within a sign system, can be seen as supporting the notion that language does not ‘reflect’ reality but rather constructs it. We can use language ‘to say what isn’t in the world, as well as what is. And since we come to know the world through whatever language we have been born into the midst of, it is legitimate to argue that our language determines reality, rather than reality our
language’ ((reference))

“Many postmodernist theorists postulate a complete disconnection of the signifier and the signified. An ’empty’ or ‘floating signifier’ is variously defined as a signifier with a vague, highly variable, unspecifiable or non-existent signified. Such signifiers mean different things to different people: they may stand for many or even any signifieds; they may mean whatever their interpreters want them to mean.”( Daniel Chandler, Semiotics: The Basics, Routledge 2007, page 78)

Alternative terms are:

  • Sign vehicle: the form of the sign;
  • Sense: the sense made of the sign;
  • Referent: what the sign ‘stands for’.

Barthes critiqued pieces of cultural material to expose how bourgeois society used them to impose its values upon others. For instance, the portrayal of wine drinking in French society as a robust and healthy habit would be a bourgeois ideal perception contradicted by certain realities (i.e. that wine can be unhealthy and inebriating). He found semiotics useful in conducting these critiques. Barthes explained that these bourgeois cultural myths were second-order signs, or connotations. A picture of a full, dark bottle is a sign, a signifier relating to a signified: a fermented, alcoholic beverage—wine. However, the bourgeois take this signified and apply their own emphasis to it, making “wine” a new signifier, this time relating to a new signified: the idea of healthy, robust, relaxing wine. Motivations for such manipulations vary from a desire to sell products to a simple desire to maintain the status quo. (


Baudrillard claims that our current society has replaced all reality and meaning with symbols and signs, and that human experience is of a simulation of reality. Moreover, these simulacra are not merely mediations of reality, nor even deceptive mediations of reality; they are not based in a reality nor do they hide a reality, they simply hide that anything like reality is relevant to our current understanding of our lives. The simulacra that Baudrillard refers to are the significations and symbolism of culture and media that construct perceived reality, the acquired understanding by which our lives and shared existence is and are rendered legible; Baudrillard believed that society has become so saturated with these simulacra and our lives so saturated with the constructs of society that all meaning was being rendered meaningless by being infinitely mutable. Baudrillard called this phenomenon the “precession of simulacra”.

“Simulacra and Simulation” breaks the sign-order into 4 stages:

  • The first stage is a faithful image/copy, where we believe, and it may even be correct, that a sign is a “reflection of a profound reality”. This is a good appearance, in what Baudrillard called “the sacramental order”.<\li>
  • The second stage is perversion of reality, this is where we come to believe the sign to be an unfaithful copy, which “masks and denatures” reality as an “evil appearance—it is of the order of maleficence”. Here, signs and images do not faithfully reveal reality to us, but can hint at the existence of an obscure reality which the sign itself is incapable of encapsulating.<\li>
  • The third stage masks the absence of a profound reality, where the simulacrum pretends to be a faithful copy, but it is a copy with no original. Signs and images claim to represent something real, but no representation is taking place and arbitrary images are merely suggested as things which they have no relationship to. Baudrillard calls this the “order of sorcery”, a regime of semantic algebra where all human meaning is conjured artificially to appear as a reference to the (increasingly) hermetic truth.<\li>
  • The fourth stage is pure simulation, in which the simulacrum has no relationship to any reality whatsoever. Here, signs merely reflect other signs and any claim to reality on the part of images or signs is only of the order of other such claims. This is a regime of total equivalency, where cultural products need no longer even pretend to be real in a naïve sense, because the experiences of consumers’ lives are so predominantly artificial that even claims to reality are expected to be phrased in artificial, “hyperreal” terms.<\li>


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