06. Codes of Signification

In the previous two sections I indicated that there has to be a brain (interpreter) that links a signal (signifier) with a concept (signified) for a sign to come into being. Where does the brain find these concepts? There ought to be a resource, some kind of a repository or archive. As I explained in the previous sections, this resource, which is generally called “codes,” consists of the signs we learn and commit to memory.

Codes are “systems of signification” established, learned and shared by the members of a society. We refer to codes to establish the signs: to form connections between the signifiers and the signifieds. (Fiske, 64) As was indicated in the previous section, there can be no sign if there is no interpreter. Similarly, there can be no interpretation and meaning if there are no codes. The function of codes is to enable communication and, thus, coexistence.

Codes are the products of “social conventions.” Conventions are built in time through communicative actions of the members of a society and they generate the codes. It is important to understand that we do not refer to conventions to generate signs, we refer to codes that have been established as a result of conventions. “Codes are not simply ‘conventions’ of communication but rather procedural systems of related conventions which operate in certain domains.” (Chandler, 148)

For example, if a person says to another person “it is about to rain, we better close the window,” apart from using the language both parties speak, s/he is generating a message based on known and accepted rules (codes) by both sides: If the window is open when it rains, water may come in and wet the belongings around the window. 

Let me note that the perceiving mind does not always need another person to compose the message. When we hear the thunder, we expect rain and go shut the window. The rain clouds do not roar “thinking” of codes and conventions for the humans to comprehend, interpret and act accordingly. The thunder reminds us of a sequence of events which most likely will take place according to the information we have learned and stored as a result of our experiences.

In addition to forming the reference points in signification, codes also determine the rules showing where and how signs can be used. In other words, codes define the medium and, in turn, the medium plays a major role in our choices of codes.

For instance, we identify a text that appears in a particular graphic format (groups of shorter lines) on a page as a poem, without reading a single line of it. (Chandler, 157) Is there a rule that says a text has to be in a certain format in order to be a poem? Although rather groundless, yes, there is a generally accepted rule established through repeated practice. Here is an exception to the rule, a poem that does not “look” like a poem by Charles Baudelaire:

I indicated that codes are units learned through experiences. Does anyone claim the opposite, that there are codes inherent in human nature? Yes, to some extent. I will discuss those views in the section titled “Gestalt.”

menTo test the existence and the defining power of codes, you may just go on a short journey, attentive to where and how you “look.” Let’s say you are on the subway or the bus, looking at the people around you. You see a man with long hair and beard sitting and talking to himself. It is likely that you and the others will try to stay away from that person even if there is an empty seat next to him, because you have learned that a middle-aged man’s talking to himself, especially if he has unkempt hair and beard, is a sign of mental imbalance.

womenIf you pay attention, you will notice that you have an impression about every person around you based on his/her outfit, age, the way he sits, the way he looks, etc. For instance, you may be almost certain that, if she spoke, the petite, smiling, older lady sitting next to you would speak in a high pitch and the well-dressed, older man with gray hair and a necktie standing over there would be speaking slowly, thoughtfully, in a low tone of voice.

The strongest proof to the “learned” nature of codes is the way they change from one society to another. For example, it is quite hard to explain to an English person that crossing legs when sitting in front of an older person is a sign of disrespect in Turkish society. And, it is as hard to explain why the English person has difficulty in understanding this to an older Turk.

To give another comparative example: To spell out the letters of a word, people mostly use human names and sometimes common nouns in the United States, such as “C as in Charlie,” “B as in boy,” “F as in Frank,” etc. Yet, in Turkey, that convention is unheard of. Instead, they use city names there (such as, “A as in Ankara,” “I as in Istanbul”). Why is there this difference? Couldn’t the Turks use human names as well? I can’t think of a technical explanation for it. These spelling conventions have somehow employed different tools arbitrarily, as in most social conventions.

Similar to signs, codes also continuously produce and affect each other and change. Not only the codes themselves, but also the process of codification is subject to change at all times as the society produces new arrangements, agreements and conventions. “Codes are dynamic systems which change over time, and are thus historically as well as socio-culturally situated.” (Chandler, 171) Perhaps one may say that socio-cultural evolution can be explained through the study of changes in codes. 

A final example: Let us imagine one of two English-speaking people turning to the other and saying “bostewronta.” Most likely the first thing to come to the mind of the addressee will be “Did s/he say something that I am supposed to understand but I did not?” (because s/he has learned about this possibility) and will ask the first person to repeat it (this is also a learned, well-established behavior). When the first person repeats the word, the second person will do what s/he is supposed to do: s/he will immediately dive into the archives in his/her brain, search all closets, drawers, folders, notebooks and find out that there is nothing corresponding to the word. 

In that respect, can we say that the uttered word has no meaning and, therefore, no code? No, we cannot. First of all, saying “this word is meaningless” carries a code in itself (“meaningless utterance”). Second, decoding will not stop there, that code will immediately forward the person to other information: “S/he said something unintelligible, I wonder why,” “Is s/he joking with me?”, “I wonder if this is a new word I am supposed to know.” 


Some scholars have tried to classify the codes based on their characteristics or contents but there have been no definite results, possibly due to their quantity and shiftiness and to significant cultural differences. The criterion used in most of these studies has been the closed- and open-endedness of the code. Some call this opposition “tight/loose,” some call it “digital/analogue” (Fiske 65-66). What they mean by tight or digital is definiteness of correspondence between the signifier and the signified: similar to software codes, mathematical codes, symbols of elements in the periodic table, they give incorrect results if interpreted incorrectly. Loose or analogue codes tend to be “open to interpretation” – they do not bear definite correspondences.

For example, a description such as “a lion of a man” is fairly common. When we hear this, we don’t think of a lion owned by a man, we have learned that it indicates a man who is strong, brave and well-built like a lion. If “lion” is substituted with “tiger” or “leopard,” it would sound a little off but it still would make sense due to our knowledge of the “lion of a man” idiom and the physical similarities between the animals. But, if we encounter “pigeon of a man,” we would be puzzled, because there is no established quality of that animal that can be attributed to a man. 

We can see such unusual associations, for example, in poetry. The poet may make use of the conventions of metaphorical association and of likening of humans to animals and leave the meaning open to each reader’s personal connotations. That is a way of “loosening” the code. Those who would dismiss such conceptual play as nonsensical are often people who are not informed about such relatively uncommon practices: they are not the type of signs we often run into in daily life. Therefore, such codes are generally learned and used in smaller circles.

This brings us to a differentiation made by the media scholar John Fiske:

Fiske divides the codes into two groups according to how and by whom they are used: “broadcast codes” and “narrowcast codes.” Broadcast codes are learned through ordinary experiences and shared by large numbers of people, whereas narrowcast codes target specific groups and require conscious and intentional learning. Broadcast codes tend to be “simple, …have an immediate appeal and…are community-oriented” and bear repetition and redundancy. They are close-ended, “tight” codes. On the other hand, narrowcast codes “… do not rely on a shared communal experience, but on a common educational or intellectual experience.”  (Fiske, 70-77; Chandler, 170-171) Narrowcast codes tend to be open-ended and loose, therefore, open to ambiguity.

At first glance, this differentiation looks like the result of an élitist approach but when one reads Fiske’s explanations, it becomes clear that it stems from his criticism of the media’s manipulations and exploitations of the masses: mass communication uses broadcast codes. For example, the basic goal of a commercial television channel is to find as many eyes as possible to look at its programs on the screen and make a profit through advertisements it gets (valued by the number of eyeballs the channel attracts). There is a direct link between “rating” and broadcast codes. 

Fiske instances mostly the printed press and television but his views are applicable to all performing arts as well. If you want your audience to grow, you basically need to “tighten,” that is, bring the number of the paradigms in your codes to a minimum and make them easily recognizable and predictable. We are talking of a vicious circle here: The broadcast audiences are given what they want and they demand what they are given.

The broadcast codes tend to be used over and over again, without going through much change. Fiske has an interesting theory regarding the repetitive and redundant nature of such codes: “The broadcast codes are the means by which a culture communicates with itself.” Both in content and form, the masses demand and enjoy predictability. In that sense, both the source and the receiver of the message happen to be the audience itself. (Fiske, 74) The society makes use of the broadcast codes for the confirmation of its own existence, values, structure and operational formats. This evokes a sense of security, that the society is firmly in balance and control in the unpredictable and entropic order of nature. 

The more they are repeated, the more the broadcast codes get digitized (tightened) and become unquestioned. For example, the leading actors, even in the movies which claim to be realistic, tend to be beautiful women and handsome men. Does a male actor have to be handsome in order to get to play the lead? Is that man talented because he is handsome or is he handsome because he is talented? Or, is he playing the lead because of his uniqueness for being both handsome and talented? Or, are we conditioned to see handsomeness as talent? Such questions are not asked in public. The code has become digital (either 0 or 1): An actor plays the leading role if he is handsome, he doesn’t if he is not.

Fiske states that decoding becomes more and more difficult as the code gets narrower (loose) and specialized. This inevitably implies a transition from majority to minority in society. “The [narrowcast code] audience expects to be changed or enriched by the communication, whereas the audience of broadcast … codes expects reassurance and confirmation.” (Fiske, 76)