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Licensed Unlicensed Requires Authentication Published by De Gruyter Mouton February 12, 2009

The social semiotics of space: Metaphor, ideology, and political economy

Alexandros Ph. Lagopoulos
From the journal


The aim of the present article is the study of the connotative meaning of space, but special theoretical attention is given to the wider theoretical context of such an enterprise. I argue that the whole domain of spatial studies is split between two major and conflicting epistemological paradigms: ‘objectivism,’ which studies ‘space’ as an external object, and ‘subjectivism,’ which approaches space as ‘place,’ that is, as a meaningful, semiotic entity. The existence of these two parallel orientations, both legitimate, points to the need for a holistic approach, allowing the articulation of semiotic phenomena with social structures. The holistic approach helps to clarify three different semiotic approaches: the immanent, the Greimasian sociosemiotic, and the holistic social semiotic approach.

The relationship between space and meaning is a metaphorical one, and metaphor belongs to the semantics of connotation. The whole connotative field of a society constitutes its world view or ideology, which is structured by a classification system. The study of the metaphorical meanings of space is set in this article against three different social backgrounds. The first are precapitalist societies. As a case study, I use the example of the Sudanese Dogon of southern Mali and show that cosmogony and cosmology, inextricably linked to an anthropomorphic code, constitute the nucleus of their world view and preside over the organization and morphology of space. The second is western modernism. I conclude that the major ideological urban models of modernism are ruled by an organicist code. The last context studied is western postmodernism. I argue that the postmodern approach to space (which is not a radically new phenomenon) adopts a pseudo-historical stance and uses the overarching metaphor of genius loci. In the context of postmodernism, the ‘metaphorization’ of built space goes hand in hand with its ‘Las Vegasization’ and ‘Disneylandization,’ and meaning, spatial experience, and the search for identity are integrated into the circuit of capitalist profit.

Published Online: 2009-02-12
Published in Print: 2009-February

© 2009 by Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co. KG, D-10785 Berlin

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