The Semiotics of Protest: Interactions and Practices during a Pandemic

Eduardo Yalán Dongo

Researcher and member of the Semiotic Research Group at the Instituto de Investigación Científica (IDIC)

2020 / 09 / 21

Translated from Spanish by Katrina Rebecca Heimark, researcher at the Instituto de Investigación Científica (IDIC) and translator.

Protests in Peru are a multicolored phenomenon. The different categories of social conflict are generally due to multiple fragmented issues related to a host of problems, ranging from the socioenvironmental, local, community, territorial, and, to a lesser extent, labor problems. During the pandemic, these conflicts appear to have increased given the conditions of an economic system that has been repeatedly called into question. Of particular note is the intense participation of some unions (Sitobur, Sinamsspo, Fenttrahop) and workers’ organizations, who have found in digital and on-line spaces new ways to execute their discourses and demands. These social practices, which are becoming more and more relevant, especially during this pandemic, should receive increased formal attention from communication sciences, social sciences, and, of course, course, semiotics.

The study of protests has emerged from the social sciences as part of our understanding of conflict in weak political regimes. Initial findings regarding protests stem from descriptive case methodology, the identification of problems that allow for understanding regarding social movements, their consolidation and their fragmentation. Thus, from Marx’s 18th Brumaire of Luis Bonaparte to the vast work by Charles Tilly regarding the dynamics of social movements, protests have been examined as objects of qualitative study from which we can understand socially disruptive phenomena, the weakening of political regimes, as well as failed representative dynamics. At the end of the 1990s and the beginning of the 21st Century, quantitative studies had a great interest in homogenizing data in order to statistically interpret events tied to social protests and demonstrations. Protest event analysis (Ruud Koopmans) develops this homogenous approach with the objective of situating the protest in a series of longitudinal analysis using media sources and empirical understandings of social events. Within this field of interest lies the following question: What is the role of semiotics in studies of social protest?

There are at least four conditions under which we examine protests (Fillieule & Tartakowsky, 2015). First, protests can be studied as a momentary occupation of open physical space (the search for a territory in the face of democratic channels that have been blocked by the political regime). Second, as the expressive nature of protest, in which symbolic and semiotic coordination is without a doubt important. Third, the number of participants who interact in a significant area. Finally, the fourth condition, the political nature of the demonstration. Despite generally being examined as part of the third condition, semiotics is a universal discipline both in terms of its concern with the production of meaning and significance of the protest as practice and discourse. It is important to highlight the relevance of semiotics as a qualitative discipline that utilizes methodological triangulation aiming to describe practice without generalizing, but rather to understand the production of phenomena that tend to be underappreciated given the global quantitative tendency of study.

We approach the semiotics of protest from three interconnected levels: the plastic, the discursive, and the practical. As regards the first level, protests have an ample repertoire of vibrant signs and gestures such as photography (photo-protest), labor union placards, poster boards with written demands, the cacophony of chants, images on social media, and hashtags (in the case of cyber-protest). All of these gestures are involved in a dynamic of increasing and decreasing intensity that they take on. Many of them become living historic memory that allows for the unification of people (“symbol”, from the Greek “symbolon”, whose meaning is “to join, relate”); the call, the alert, the appeal to enlist in social developments, the intensification revealed in the accidental stroke of graffiti. Others will decline in power, the reduction of images that no longer circulate with vitality, but rather are rationed across commercial digital platforms (as happens with photo-protests) or are diluted with the passing of time.

At the second level, that of discourse, the semiotics of protest is established as lack of embodiment in the practice that, rather, semantically regulates those articulated demands. Discourse analysis can study the autonomy of discourse in political protests, its consolidation in parliament, or its existence in a pathological framework. Given their interests in discourse, semioticians examine the semantic levels, the narrative structures of negotiations and the summary of the declaration of protest discourse.

However, it is the third level, that of practical analysis, that requires additional attention for semioticians given the complexity in the production of meaning. Here, we understand meaning-making as a narrative chain framed in a collective declarative process (time-space) in which different lifestyles come face to face. Everyday experiences interact with discourse and sustain it, but a break between discourse and this reality necessitates social innovation, which emerges via a growing interaction in protest. Contractual rules sustain the practice that is found to be constantly adjusting given the norms that determine protest depend on those practices that take place in the streets or on social media. Our proposal maintains that ritual practice of waiting builds the living narrative of the protest. In other words, lying in wait is the living meaning of protest.

Feeling surrounded, lying in wait, or setting a trap is achieved as an effect of the living sense of the protest, it explains its dynamics and fragmentations, its imbalances, its readjustments, its accidents and confusion (Quezada Macchiavello, 2013). One lies in wait when law enforcement prevents the movement of protestors, when a direct provocation emerges in route, when protestors make a direct appeal and question those politically responsible, when protests take place on the steps of an institution, building or important monuments. Lying in wait, in other words, means to wait (Greimas). To wait; to lie in wait for the miraculous appearance of the defendant, the descent of the politician, the representative of certain institutional power. It is an impossible event, the summons of a specific personality.

We conclude, from this perspective, that lying in wait serves as a narrative ritual, living, temporal and spatial on which the very existence of the protest depends, on the game residing in that call. With this, we argue that the primary narrative of the protest, that which tells us that protests are always in relation to a precise object, never one in the abstract, is more complex (Leone, 2012). Here, on the other hand, we maintain the indispensable by observing an indeterminate object that circulates in the living narrative of the ritual, that impossible demand (demandez l’impossible) which is objectified, abstract, virtual, and comprised of the ambiguities and unpredictable events of protest. This, perhaps, is the work of the semiotics of protest—reestablishing in observation the living ties of the object of study: meaning.

Cite this post (APA, seventh edition):
Yalán-Dongo, E. (2020, September 21). The semiotics of protest: Interactions and practices during a pandemic (K. Heimark, Trans.). Scientia et Praxis: Un blog sobre investigación científica y sus aplicaciones.


Fillieule, O. & Tartakowsky, D. (2015). La manifestación. Cuando la acción colectiva toma las calles. Siglo XXI.

Leone, M. (2012). Breve introducción a la semiótica de protesta. CIC. Cuadernos de Información y Comunicación, 17, 161-173.

Quezada-Macchiavello, Ó. (2013). Interacciones sin nombre. Un caso emblemático: “Ne me quitte pas” (Cirque du Soleil). In A. C. De Oliveira (Ed.), As interacões sensíveis: ensaios de sociossemiótica a partir da obra de Eric Landowski. Estação das Letras e Cores e Editora CPS.

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