If a sign can be defined as anything that signifies or stands for something other than itself,1 then a non-sign can be defined as anything that doesn’t signify or stand for something other than itself. A non-sign doesn’t signify, and also doesn’t indicate or represent anything.
While a sign may consist of a signifier and a signified idea or concept,2 a non-sign may consist of a non-signifier and a non-signified or absent idea or concept. While the term “signification” may be used to describe the relationship between a signifier and a signified idea or concept,3 the term “non-signification” may be used to describe the relationship between a non-signifier and a non-signified or absent idea or concept.
Non-signs do not designate, denote, imply, or refer to anything. They may be described as blank spaces, unfilled slots, or empty placeholders in systems of signification. They may also be described as non-signifying interruptions, pauses, silences, or discontinuities. They may also be breaks, gaps, or holes in language and communication. They may belong to the realm of non-language and non-communication.
While the linguistic world may be a world of signs and symbols, the non-linguistic world may be a world of non-signs and non-symbols. The linguistic world (the world of “meaning”) may be subjectively or objectively derived from the non-linguistic world (the world of “non-meaning”).
The intelligible world may be a world of signs and non-signs. Semiotics may therefore need to consist of not only a theory of signs, but also a theory of non-signs.
Signs may have signifying and non-signifying elements or parts. A thing that is a sign of something may also be a non-sign of something else. Non-signs may also in some cases be non-signifying coincidental events or “meaningless” epiphenomena associated with signifying events or “meaningful” phenomena.
According to Charles W. Morris (1971), all signs are either signals or symbols. Signals are signs that are not interpreted to signify other signs, but symbols are signs that are interpreted to signify other signs.4 Non-signs are therefore neither signals nor symbols.
Morris describes five modes of signifying: identificative, designative, appraisive, prescriptive, and formative. Signs signifying in these modes may be described as “identifiors,” “designators,” “appraisors,” “prescriptors,” and “formators.”5 Non-signs demonstrate none of these modes of signifying.
The modes of “non-meaning” or non-signifying belonging to a non-sign may also be denotative or connotative, literal or metaphorical.
A sign may be empty if it can’t signify something or if there is nothing for it to signify. However, an empty sign (if there is such a thing) may signify nothing and still be a sign (e.g. a sign of unsignifiability, meaninglessness, emptiness, or nothingness).
While a floating signifier has a variable or unstable form of signification,6 a non-sign has no signification at all. While signs may always have some “meaning,” even if that “meaning” is empty or undefined, non-signs have no “meaning” at all.
While a sign may not signify an actually existing object or event,7 a non-sign does not signify anything at all.
Objects qua objects do not signify or “mean” anything. They only signify or “mean” something as ideas or concepts signified or symbolized by signs or symbols. On the other hand, signifying objects (objects qua signs) may signify ideas or concepts, while non-signifying objects may not.
Signs that have outlived or lost their usefulness may be destined to become non-signs (or things that no longer signify anything). Signs may also become non-signs if their conventionally accepted signification is shown to be unwarranted or unjustified. Things that have not yet become signs (pre-signs, pre-symptoms, and other pre-semiotic phenomena) may also be seen or interpreted as non-signs.
A sign must be adequate for the purposes for which it is used, if it is to function as a sign. Some signs may become so inadequate for the purposes for which they are used that they no longer function as signs, and thus become non-signs. Some signs may also become so obscure or ambiguous that they become non-signs. Some signs may also become so unstable and unreliable in their signification that they become non-signs.
Non-signs do not signify statements or propositions. Nor do they signify beliefs, attitudes, moods, emotions, feelings, or other states of mind.
The designification relation may be one in which the signification of a sign is destabilized, disrupted, revoked, or nullified. To designify a sign may be to render it a non-sign.
Non-signs may in some cases be able to be ignored, because of their lack of “meaning” or signification. False signs, on the other hand, may require some degree of attention and response. For example, a false alarm may be a false sign of an emergency, but also a true sign of a defect in an alarm system requiring repair or correction.
Non-signs have no “meaning” to be interpreted, but they may still need to be read or examined in some way in order to be understood as non-signs. They may also present a challenge to the hegemony and all-importance of signs and signification.8
Signs may sometimes be misinterpreted as non-signs if their signification is overlooked or unrecognized. Thus, there may be some signs that are mistaken as non-signs, and whose supposed non-signification may be merely a matter of the interpreter’s ignorance or lack of understanding.9
The mode of non-signification belonging to a non-sign may also depend on the non-sign’s relation to signs and other non-signs. Changes in the non-sign’s relation to signs and other non-signs may result in changes in its mode of non-signification.
There may be no adequate signs for that which transcends signification. “Signs” for that which transcends signification may not be signs at all, and may actually be non-signs.
Unlike signs that signify through other signs, non-signs do not signify at all. Nor do they express anything.
Although there may be sign systems of “meaning” and signification, there can be no non-sign systems of “non-meaning” and non-signification, since non-signs do not signify or refer to anything, and therefore cannot have cohesive or coherent relations with one another.
1Charles S. Peirce, Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, Volume 2, Paragraph 228, 1897 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960).
2Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics , edited by Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye in collaboration with Albert Riedlinger, translated by Wade Baskin (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966), p. 67.
3Ibid., p. 67.
4Charles W. Morris, Writings on the General Theory of Signs (The Hague: Mouton, 1971), pp. 366-367.
5Ibid., p. 364.
6Daniel Chandler, Semiotics: The Basics (Abingdon: Routledge, 2002), p. 74.
7Morris, Writings on the General Theory of Signs, p. 416.
8Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, translated by Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 1987), p. 15.
9Henri Lefebvre, Critique of Everyday Life: Foundations for a Sociology of the Everyday, Volume 2, translated by John Moore (London: Verso, 2002), p. 276.