Towards a semiotics of manipulation

VERSUS n. 137, 2/2023 Towards a semiotics of manipulation
Edited by Alessandra Pozzo and Remo Gramigna

The issue 137 of Versus coordinated by Alessandra Pozzo (CNRS) and Remo Gramigna (University of Turin) will be devoted to the theme of manipulation. Versus is one of the first international journals of semiotics, philosophy and language theory. It was founded in 1971 by Umberto Eco who was its editor until his death. The journal is now edited by Patrizia Violi.

State of the art

The expression “manipulation” reveals some sober but eloquent hints of its extension if we consider its main definition as “manual reworking”. This fundamental operation inspires the other meanings that globally recur to the changing reality of alteration: the adaptation and composition of heterogeneous elements, interventions carried out through techniques aimed at selecting useful characteristics for a biological structure, and, finally, the tendentious reworking of the truth through the altered or partial presentation of data and news in order to maneuver according to one’s own ends and interests in political and moral orientations. Of these extensions of manipulation, the latter attracts our attention most recently because of its spread in communication strategies with nefarious effects, the signs of which we recognize more and more.

The good manipulation

However, an examination of the advantageous aspects of manipulation can only benefit the study of the phenomenon. Detienne et Vernant (1974) identify metis (cunning) as a mental category that provides the archetype of ‘good manipulation’. Human processing, Vernant explains, has an intelligent purpose, in contrast to natural processes that are random and unpredictable. Craft activities, for example, involve metis. But its scope is immense: it practically concerns the cultural universe in all its aspects. The man who uses metis, the cunning intelligence, is grappling with the changing reality of becoming, he resorts to expedient, to deception, to entrapment, to the most oblique and tortuous means to achieve his purpose.

To complete the picture traced around the role of cunning intelligence in the reworking of elements of various kinds, Roland Barthes’ (1970) text on ancient rhetoric suggests some characteristic aspects of rhetorical practices that since antiquity have offered themselves as constituent elements of the manipulation linked to discourse and literature. Rhetoric is presented as: art, technique, teaching, science, field of observation, morality, social practice and playful practice. These characteristics testify to the spread of the rhetorical fact in a large part of the field of knowledge and human activity.

Ambiguity as a clue

If we consider manipulation from the point of view of producing or receiving a message that has been altered to achieve any objective, we are confronted with the illusion that we can clearly convey the whole of human experience. In communication practice, we often experience the difficulty not only in expressing our thoughts but also in correctly interpreting any message, especially when the sender’s intentions are ambiguous. When confronted with undecidedness regarding the content to be associated with an expression, it is possible to imagine that the semantic ambiguity is produced by contingent causes or disturbing elements. Sometimes, on the other hand, the ambiguity of a message is the effect of an intentional communicative strategy that focuses preferentially on the connotations that the message itself can evoke in the recipient. In other cases, it solicits a range of emotions and feelings in the recipient, enacting that linguistic game that makes meaning not its denotation but its use (Wittgenstein 1967). In this case, what the message denotes is relatively less important than other factors that come into play, such as the targeted selection of an intended audience, the choice of a style, intonation, keywords, piloted de-semantizations or other means of expression that convey a different kind of information than denotation.

Allusions and programmed stimuli

By soliciting emotional perceptual levels, the aim is sometimes to convey a message aimed at provoking unconscious reactions instead of offering itself for interpretation and linguistic decoding. The type of content involved in this expressive option is often devoid of any real potential for conceptualization. Instead, it is based on the transmission of confusing, evocative elements, rich in semantic elements borrowed from other terms belonging to specially selected semantic fields and marked by effective phonic or visual symbolism. The advertising message, as well as the political message, is based on this type of expressive manipulation that characterizes the conative function of language using bland but persuasive means. These modes of expression have traditionally been explored by rhetoric as a discipline of elusive, deceptive, and practical-discursive language play. If we choose as a secondary evaluation criterion the freedom the recipient can exercise with regard to the information received, we can identify in this type of operation the degree zero of the manipulative message.

Manipulation strategies

In more complex manipulative linguistic acts, the processing of information obeys a well-defined strategy aimed at concealing part or all of the message so that the recipient does not receive the information or receives it inaccurately. This is the case with euphemism (Prato 2020), in which the operation performed is motivated by tendentious purposes. In this case, access to the information being denied to the recipient because the source of the data is unavailable, the recipient’s freedom of decision with respect to a disguised fact is null and void.

We are affected by these and other sophisticated manipulative techniques as soon as we come into contact with our fellow human beings. Sometimes the most innocent communication that we would be willing to bet is free of manipulative thoughts, reveals to the careful analysis of those who know how to recognize the traces, a refined manipulative project. Conspiracy theories, politically correct discourse, rigged enquiries, scientific research sponsored and camouflaged for commercial objectives, electoral debates, seduction, proselytizing, sexual and power abuses concealed for decades in unsuspected fields of social life and various other areas of human interaction reveal to rigorous investigation the use of sophisticated manipulation to achieve mostly dishonest goals.

Semiotics of Manipulation

In order to situate the phenomenon of manipulation in a well-defined semiotic framework, the remarks made by Algirdas J. Greimas seem most pertinent. Indeed, a semiotics of manipulation is properly traceable in the Greimasian theoretical framework. It is important to point out from the outset that the concept of manipulation within the Greimas semiotics paradigm takes on a meaning quite distinct from those described above, and undoubtedly plays a central role in the semiotic theory of narrativity, becoming an autonomous semiotic device. Man’s action on things (making to be) and man’s action on his fellow men (making to do) is a basic distinction that underlies models of manipulation. Manipulation operates within two contractual instances, the persuasive doing and the interpretative doing of the manipulating subject and the manipulated subject.

In the discursive sphere, manipulation produces and modifies the effects of meaning. If truth is nothing other than a sense effect produced through discourse, then discursive manipulation consists, according to Greimas, in making-believing and making-believing true sense effects. The two main forms of manipulation, manipulation according to will and manipulation according to power, respectively include such phenomena as temptation and seduction on the one hand, and provocation and threat on the other. Within the theory of Algirdas Greimas, a semiotics of manipulation is already clearly sketched. However, a typology of the various forms of manipulation is still open to further investigations and researches.


In order to further investigate the means used to implement these kinds of communicative processes, a call for papers on the Semiotics of Manipulation is proposed with the aim of studying in detail some of these strategies in order to develop a semiotic methodology more appropriate to the examination of these topics. The expected contributions can be both theoretical and applied in nature and may, therefore, focus on the different themes indicated in this call for papers, and in particular on:

  • Theoretical aspects: developments and interpretations of a semiotics of manipulation starting from the theory of Greimas or other scholars;
  • Contemporary or ancient forms of manipulation;
  • Positive manipulation or metis;
  • Manipulation, rhetoric and discourse;
  • Manipulation and deception;
  • Manipulation of information;
  • Manipulation in religious traditions;
  • Media and manipulation;
  • Ethics and manipulation;
  • Politics and manipulation.


Barthes, R. “L’Ancienne rhétorique”, Communications, 16, “Recherches rhétoriques”, 1970, p. 172-223 ( di Paolo Fabbri, La retorica antica, Milano, Bompiani, 1972.)
Carofiglio, G., La manomissione delle parole, Milano, Rizzoli, 2010.
Detienne, M. et Vernant J-P., Les Ruses de l’intelligence. La mètis des Grecs. Paris, Flammarion, 1974.
Eco, U., Trattato di semiotica generale, Milano, Bompiani, 1975.
Eco, U. I limiti dell’interpretazione, Milano, Bompiani, 1991.
Greimas, Algirdas J., Del senso 2. Narratività modalità passioni. Milano, Mondadori, 1984. Greimas A.J. e Courtès, J., « Manipulation », Sémiotique. Dictionnaire raisonné de la théorie du langage (1986 – 1993). (Traduzione italiana a cura di Paolo Fabbri, Semiotica. Dizionario ragionato della teoria del linguaggio, Milano, Mondadori, 2007). Jakobson, R., Essais de linguistique générale, Paris, Les Editions de Minuit, 1963. Hjelmslev, L., I fondamenti della teoria del linguaggio, Torino, Einaudi, 1961. Lombardo Vallauri, E., La lingua disonesta. Contenuti impliciti e strategie della persuasione, Bologna, Il Mulino, 2019. Madisson M.L.- Wentsel, A., Strategic Conspiracy Narratives. A semiotic approach, New York, Routledge, 2021. Prato, A., “Raccontare i fatti come non sono”. L’uso dell’eufemismo nel discorso pubblico contemporaneo, Versus, 1/2020, pp. 139-150. de Saussure, L. – Schulz, P. Manipulation and Ideologies in the Twentieth Century, Amsterdam, John Benjamins, 2005. Watzlawick, P., How real is real? Confusion, Disinformation, Communication, New York, Random House, 1976.
Wittgenstein, L., Ricerche filosofiche, Torino, Einaudi, 1967.

Evaluation procedure

Each proposal will be evaluated by the volume coordinators and the journal editors. Articles drafted from accepted proposals will be submitted for evaluation by a double blind referee.


  • 30/11/22: submission of a 500-word proposal (with bibliography and short bio);
  • 20/12/22: notification of acceptance or rejection of the proposal;
  • 20/05/23: submission of the article of up to 40 000 characters;
  • 20/06/23: notification of referral
  • 20/07/23: delivery of the final version of the article
  • December 2023: publication of the volume

Proposals should be sent both to the journal ((redazione.vs /at/ ) and to the editors of the issue: Alessandra Pozzo ((alessandrapozzo /at/ ) and Remo Gramigna ((remo.gramigna /at/ )

Languages accepted: English, French, Italian

The journal does not require any article processing charges.