The Trivium and
“The Semiotic Iceberg”: A Paradigm for Reading and Responding to Texts
Making Empirical Observations (Pre-critical)
First-Order Signs: “Above
the waterline”; surface-level / obvious
“Who?” “What?” “Where?” “When?”
Analyzing the Message (Inductive, Critical)
“Below the waterline”; subterranean / not so obvious
signs; patterns of meaning as they contribute to the text’s overall
expression—see “Tool Kit”: language of genre)
Interpretation-Generating Questions: “How? ”
(How does this text
communicate its message?)
Formulating an Interpretive Position (Post-critical)
Generating Claims &
Drawing Broader Conclusions: “Why?” or “So What?”
(Why is this significant?
What is the broader ‘so what’?)
THE SEMIOTIC ICEBERG
Based on model by Greg Fraser
Waterline to dive below
outlooks and values
shared hopes, dreams, and
power structures received wisdoms
factors principles figurative meanings
supposed eternal truths unspoken tensions
considerations of what is
‘natural’ or ‘normal’ assumptions
ideas and ideals standard
mentalities historical underpinnings
biases expectations intellectual traditions
“master narratives” morals and
mores widespread preoccupations
philosophical underpinnings psychological
states socio-economic factors
criticisms/critiques literary echoes and
common assumptions about gender, politics, religion,
race subconscious motivations, fears, desires
Questions: Logic and Rhetoric-Stage Questions
“The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing... Never lose a holy curiosity.” –Albert Einstein
states does the text appear to explore? To what effect?
questions does the text seem to grapple with? What broader conclusions can
we draw about these?
issues does the text seem to address? For what apparent reasons?
How (and why) does
the text reflect or resist the thinking/biases of its historical moment
(i.e., Franklin’s thinking is very much a product of Enlightenment humanism
and Emerson and Thoreau’s philosophies a product of American Romanticism)?
What appears to be
the dominant mood or tone of the text? Does the mood/tone shift at any
moment? Where? Why?
What seem to be some
of the dominant themes of the text? Can you identify any “nooks and
crannies” of theme (more focused thematic elements that are more unlikely
and higher on the ladder of specificity)?
Does the text reach
any definitive conclusions, or does it remain open-ended (or ambiguous) with
respect to the questions it raises and attempts to respond to (Consider the
narrator’s often divided and ambiguous treatment of Hester in The Scarlet
What formal features
(i.e., language: a good example in the writing of Franklin, the rhetorical
strategy at the core of his creation and presentation of “American
identity”) produce thematic effects in the text? What are those effects and
how are they produced in the writing?
In what ways might
the text exhibit a dual perspective or double meaning? Does perspective
shift as the text unfolds? How might the text move in two directions at the
same time? Why?
The literal can’t
help but be figurative (i.e., consider the recurring motif of water in
Franklin’s Autobiography and its accruing associations with freedom
and independence). How is this borne out in the text under analysis?
Does the text offer a
hard critical look at some aspect of human experience? A critique perhaps?
How does the text
seem to resist (or perpetuate) common assumptions and belief systems
(for example, about gender, politics, religion, etc.)? What beliefs seem to
be expressed or valorized in the text?
What does the text
seem to “say”? What’s it ostensibly “about”? What’s the apparent subject
matter of the text?
How do language and
other devices (i.e., symbolism, irony, etc.) generate specific meanings in
the text? How is content a product of, or related to, form and style?
characteristics appear to call a great deal of attention to themselves? Why?
How do they have thematic significance? What features seem suppressed? Why?
What seem to be some
of the literary precursors to the text? Is the text somehow in “dialogue”
with its precursors (this may become ostensibly apparent in a text like
The Great Gatsby where we see clear influence of Franklin’s ideas in Jay
What is the genre of
the text? How does the text seem to obey or resist generic conventions? How?