Image schemas in visual semiotics: Looking for an origin of plastic language

and Piero PolidoroORCID iD:
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  • LUMSA University, Rome, Italy
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  • Piero Polidoro is an associate professor in Semiotics at LUMSA University in Rome. He has a Ph.D. in Semiotics (University of Bologna, 2005). His thesis, supervised by Umberto Eco and Patrizia Violi, dealt with two important aspects of visual semiotics: recognition and the origins and mechanisms of plastic language. From 2006 to 2008, he had a post-doctoral fellowship at Istituto Italiano di Scienze Umane. His research project, supervised by Omar Calabrese, was about the interpretative cooperation in visual texts. His main research interests are in general semiotics, visual semiotics (visual perception, visual identity, visual narration), communication strategy, and qualitative website analysis. His approach is based on interpretative and structural semiotics, but he is also open to cognitive sciences and visual studies.
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The aim of this article is to present a hypothesis explaining the origin of plastic meaning. In visual semiotics, plastic meaning is that produced by visual configurations per se, i.e. independently from what they represent. This meaning can be assimilated to the kind of effects studied by (Arnheim, R. 1954/1974. Art and visual perception: A psychology of the creative eye, 2nd edn. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press). In his book The Body In the Mind, (Johnson, M. 1987. The body in the mind. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press) is the first to propose that image schemas and their metaphorical projections could be used to explain some of these visual effects. Nevertheless, I think that his approach presents some shortcomings. Above all, Johnson’s examples always concern cases in which visual stimuli match an image schema, while Arnheim’s observations are mostly about effects of tension and dynamism generated by a conflict with our expectations. I will propose that, to complete Johnson’s proposal, we need an inferential theory of aesthetic experience, derived from Meyer’s and Eco’s works. This theory would explain how expectations and their verifications can produce different kinds of tension and arousal, the basic mechanisms of plastic meaning.

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Cognitive Semiotics is a multidisciplinary journal devoted to high-quality research, integrating perspectives, methods and insight from cognitive science, cognitive linguistics and semiotics, placing meaning-making into the broader context of cognitive, social and neurobiological processes. The journal is a platform for the study of meaning-making in our interactions with the surroundings in all domains, in language and other sign vehicles.