A Semiotic Analysis of Political Cartoons




Cynthia Bailey Lee





CSE 271, Spring 2003


Professor Joseph Goguen


June 5, 2003






Political cartoons historically and currently play a significant role in public discourse about serious and important issues. They are also most often funny. This paper presents a formal analysis of political cartoons using methods from classical semiotics, semiotic morphisms, and in particular the study of blends. This includes rigorously addressing questions such as why the humor in political cartoons has a different flavor from most other cartoons, how political cartoons achieve serious commentary and humor, and what literary structures characterize political cartoons’ visual style. A selection of political cartoons are analyzed in detail.


1          Introduction

A cartoon is ``a drawing, representational or symbolic, that makes a satirical, witty, or humorous point.'' [5] This work focuses attention on a particular kind of cartoon, the political cartoon. In addition to the obvious difference in subject matter for political cartoons compared to other types of cartoons, political cartoons constitute a distinct class visually. Also, while most political cartoons are funny in some sense, it is not the sense in which most other cartoons are funny.

The origins of the modern political cartoon can be traced to the 16th century, with drawings used in the theological debates of the Reformation. The cartoon style as such developed in Britain in the 1800's and is distinguished by the use of caricature. [5] Throughout much of the United States' history, political cartoons have held a prominent place. During the Civil War era, Thomas Nast's mastery of the medium was applied very effectively to the defense of Lincoln's policies. Nast is the inventor of Donkey and Elephant signs that remain today the de facto standard signs for the Democratic and Republican parties, respectively. Additionally, his influence is credited with the overthrow of the corrupt ``Boss'' Tweed government of New York City. [5]

To achieve such ambitious practical results as these, political cartoons must strike a delicate balance between telling things that seem real and true, and using wild imagination, exaggeration and humor. The result is to drive home a powerful and relevant message in a pleasant way. Indeed, this is the essence of caricature, or satire, which is the basis for political cartoons' effect. But what does it mean structurally and mathematically to be caricature or satire? The rest of the paper will address this question using methods from classical semiotics, semiotic morphisms and particularly blends.

First, a comment about the interpretation of political cartoons as presented in this paper. This is not a paper about politics, but rather how political thoughts and opinions are expressed through complex signs. In general, the worldview of the artist will be accepted as truth for the sake of analysis. Furthermore, the words used here in the labeling of concepts from the cartoons were chosen with a large amount of arbitrariness, as they are generally unimportant in the analysis.

2          Saussure and Sign Systems

In linguist Ferdinand de Saussure's study of signs, he emphasized the importance of studying whole systems of signs, rather than simply doing individual analysis. He claimed that signs draw meaning and significance from the way they interact with other signs in the system. In particular, he observed that ``concepts...are defined not positively, in terms of their content, but negatively by contrast with other items in the same system'' [1][2](editing and emphasis as given in [3]). This principle is nicely illustrated in the following cartoon (Figure 1).


Figure 1: February 10, 2003 [4]


What strikes one first about the cartoon is the relative difference in size and fuse length of the two ``bombs.'' One also notices a difference in the person depicted as the bombs' ``heads.'' The likeness of George W. Bush acts as a means of further distinguishing these two signs; he lights the fuse of a distant bomb while turning his back on the closer one. Thus he creates a contrast between them, both in terms of a spatial relationship and a mode of interaction. Together these contrasts form part of the core meaning of this cartoon, which is a contrast between nations, a contrast between policies towards nations, and a contradictory matching between nations and policies. But how exactly are these images and signs related to nations and policies? To answer this question, we turn to a structural study of the meaning of complex metaphorical signs known as blending.

3          Blending

The most basic intuition for identifying a blend in this cartoon is to notice that while the images of the bombs play a metaphorical role in describing geopolitical relationships between the United States, North Korea, and Iraq, what is seen cannot be a simple projection from a geopolitical space to a metaphorical ``bombs with fuses'' space. This is because elements of the source space are visible in what is supposed to be the target space! The natural explanation for the coexistence of elements from both the source and target spaces is that a new blended space has been created. Figures 2 and 3a below compare the structures of traditional metaphor theory and blend theory. Figure 3b shows how the blend analysis works for this cartoon.

Figure 2: Traditional Metaphor Analysis



Figures 3a and 3b: Blending Analysis[*]


In the blending theory, the source and target spaces are both called input spaces, since they both contribute to the blended space. Notice that in addition to the blended space, a generic space has been added. The purpose of the generic space is to define at a very high level the nature of the structures internal to the three other spaces. This will become clearer by looking in more detail at the ``bomb'' cartoon example. First, since Iraq and North Korea are really two different conceptual spaces, we amend Figure 3b to include three input spaces, something not generally possible in traditional metaphor analysis (Figure 4).

Figure 4: Amended Blend Analysis            



Figures 5: Detail of Blend Analysis


Figure 5 gives the detail of the structures internal to the nodes shown in Figure 4. The three input space structures are found by taking an interpretation of international politics, and knowledge of how bombs and fuses work. Observe that the structure of the three input spaces is strikingly similar. A generalization of this similarity is defined in the generic space, and one particular way of blending the two input spaces, the one shown in the cartoon, is defined in the blended space.

In the blended space, the Bush and the Bomber nodes have been fused to a single Bomber-Bush. This in itself has significance for the meaning that is emergent in the blended space, in other words, is not found in any input space. Since each input space is its own sphere, it is only in the blended space that such a profound and dangerous contradiction between the policies towards Iraq and North Korea, and the immediacy of the danger posed by each can be seen. Also, because the Bomber figure is fused with Bush, and bombers are generally thought of as dangerous and even evil, the fusing of this figure with Bush is particularly unflattering.

Another structural difference between the blended space and the input spaces is that in the blended space there is a loop; the North Korea bomb ``will injure'' Bomber-Bush, who lit the fuse. However, in the input space, war with North Korea ``will injure'' a third party, United States. The ``bombs with fuses'' input space also implicitly assumes that Victim is different from Bomber. President Bush is certainly part of the United States, and as such would be injured if the United States in general were injured, so in an indirect sense the concept of Bush hurting himself can be found in an input space. But a strong, direct conclusion about the self-injury aspect of Bush's neglect of North Korea can only be found in the emergent meaning of the blended space.

This exemplifies how blending theory helps define satire, the genre of humor used in political cartoons. Satire does not seek to create totally new meaning, else it would not be relevant to real events; rather satire reconfigures spaces to emphasize, illustrate, and comment.

4          Semiotic Morphisms

The contribution of semiotic morphisms to the analysis above can be seen in that there is not only structure connecting the conceptual spaces, but also structure within them, and these structures also have inter-relationships. What makes a metaphor or blend work, what defines the quality of the choice of target or input spaces, is the degree to which the mappings between spaces preserve this structure. [8] As discussed above, the relationships between elements in the ``bombs with fuses'' space mirror the important relationships in the North Korea and Iraq spaces, and all are mirrored in the blended space. This is why readers are able to make sense of the metaphor, and why the emergent meaning of the blended space is accepted (because it does not stray too far from known reality). For a formal, explicit listing of the morphisms between the five conceptual spaces, see Appendix A: BOBJ Code for the ``Bombs'' Cartoon.

5          Metonymy and Metonymic Tightening

This cartoon also makes for an interesting study of the use of metonymy. Metonymy is defined as ``a trope in which one word is put for another that suggests it.''[7] An obvious example is the use of caricatures of the leaders of the various countries as representatives for the countries themselves. In other words, Kim Jung Il the man, though no doubt ruthless, is not the real danger to the United States; it is North Korea's advanced weaponry. President Bush is an interesting example because he represents himself directly in terms of policy-making, but in terms of the danger posed by North Korea, also stands in for the United States. Metonymy is widely used in political cartoons, and helps to define their distinctive caricature visual style.

Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner formalized the concept of metonymy in terms of its application to blends. As the last of their six ``optimality principles,'' conditions for successful blends, they define the Metynomic Projection Constraint (or as it has come to be known, Metynomic Tightening) as ``when an element is projected from an input to the blend and a second element from that input is projected because of its metonymic link to the first, shorten the metonymic distance between them in the blend.'' [6]

A classic example is the embodiment of Death in western tradition as a cloaked skeleton. The metaphor of death is garnished with an element that is literally associated with dead things (i.e. a skeleton). [6] In this case, bombs, as a weapon, have a metonymic link to the concept of war and danger.

6          Further Example

Now that the major elements of semiotics, semiotic morphisms and blends have been introduced, we present a brief analysis of a second cartoon for reinforcement.

Figure 6: March 28, 2003 [9]


In this cartoon, we see the conventional stereotype of a family vacation where the children do nothing but ask ``Are we there yet?'' of their embattled parents, combined with U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and the news media. Formally, this corresponds to the following blend diagram:

Figure 7: Detail of Blend Analysis


In this case, the emergent meaning of the blended space derives from a mismatch in the connotations of the Result node in the Family Vacation space and the War space. In a family vacation, one generally assumes that the Destination is something exciting, say Disneyland, to naturally be desired and eagerly awaited by the children. However, in the case of the War Space, one would never hope for the kind of disaster that happened in Vietnam, a Failed, Expensive War. (Note the use of metonymy; Vietnam the country replaces Vietnam the war, which in turn stands for the abstract concept of a disastrous military campaign.) But in the blended space, the eagerness of children to arrive at Destination is fused with the zeal with which reporters ask Rumsfeld about struggles in the war in Iraq, to lead to a grotesque situation where reporters seem to desire horrible things to happen. Indeed, the inappropriateness of this seemingly too-eager attitude is both the ``punch line'' and serious message of the cartoon. Notice that the full effect of this conclusion can only be reached in the blended space, a condition Grady, Oakley, and Coulson call the ``chief diagnostic for the occurrence of blending.'' [10]

7          Reblending

Though more common to non-political cartoons, reblending is a common process by which humor is created. In part, reblending is more common to other types of cartoons because they are more likely to be multi-frame, but this can occasionally be seen in political cartoons such as the one in Figure 8, below.

Figure 8: May 29, 2003 [11]


The essence of reblending is that the reader is led to form one blended space, then given new information that reinterprets the input spaces and creates a different, usually contradictory, blended space. [12] In the first frame above, we have the space of back-patting, blended with the space of Iraqi-US relations, yielding a blend that seems to say Iraqis have love and gratitude for the US. In the second frame, the same two input spaces are reblended to say that Iraqis do not like the US, a direct contradiction of the first blend.

8          Conclusion

In The Literary Mind, Mark Turner argues that complex metaphorical and blending patterns, such as those in the cartoons seen in this paper, are fundamental to the way humans think and reason. [13] Indeed, he argues that almost no thought or reason can take place without these seemingly advanced processes. This may explain the surprising fact that political cartoons, on the surface a not ``serious'' art form, are so successful in helping society to understand and make judgments about the extremely complex interactions at work in political systems. In this paper, the nature of political cartoons' signature caricature-based visual style was linked to metonymy and metonymic tightening. Political cartoon's particular flavor of humor, satire, was understood in terms of the emergent meaning in blended spaces. Finally, the classical semiotic study of contrasts between signs in sign systems was shown to characterize a common practice in political cartoons.


Appendix A: BOBJ Code for the ``Bombs'' Cartoon

In the text of this paper, the mathematical structure of the blends was represented in visual diagrams. For the purposes of very rigorous analysis, a formal language for these structures becomes convenient. Such a language is presented in Joseph Goguen's ``An Introduction to Algebraic Semiotics, with Application to User Interface Design,'' using OBJ3 (now BOBJ). [14] The following is essentially a transcription of Figure 5 using the methods described there. An explanation of these methods is beyond the scope of this paper, though the basic points can be learned by comparing the code below to Figure 5. Note that the objection that the BOBJ interpreter raises to the code below, that Bush-Bomber acts as both Person and People from the generic space, is quite correct and highlights the unusualness of that loop structure.


  obj DATA is pr BOOL .

    sort Person .

    sort People .

    op unknown1 : -> Person .

    op unknown2 : -> People .



  th NKOREA is sorts Process Result . pr DATA .

    op conflict-escalation : -> Process .

    op war-NKorea : -> Result .

    op US : -> People .


    op initiates : Person Process -> Bool .

    op ends-in : Process Result -> Bool .

    op will-injure : Result People -> Bool .


    eq ends-in(conflict-escalation, war-NKorea) = true .

    eq will-injure(war-NKorea, US) = true .



  th IRAQ is sorts Process Result . pr DATA .

    op Bush : -> Person .

    op conflict-escalation : -> Process .

    op war-Iraq : -> Result .


    op initiates : Person Process -> Bool .

    op ends-in : Process Result -> Bool .

    op effects : Result People -> Bool .


    eq initiates(Bush, conflict-escalation) = true .

    eq ends-in(conflict-escalation, war-Iraq) = true .



  th BOMBS-WITH-FUSE is sorts Process Result . pr DATA .

    op bomber : -> Person .

    op burning-fuse : -> Process .

    op bomb-explosion : -> Result .

    op victim : -> People .


    op lights : Person Process -> Bool .

    op ends-in : Process Result -> Bool .

    op injures : Result People -> Bool .


    eq lights(bomber, burning-fuse) = true .

    eq ends-in(burning-fuse, bomb-explosion) = true .

    eq injures(bomb-explosion, victim) = true .



  th GENERIC is sorts Process Result . pr DATA .

    op person : -> Person .

    op process : -> Process .

    op result : -> Result .

    op people : -> People .


    op initiates : Person Process -> Bool .

    op ends-in : Process Result -> Bool .

    op effects : Result People -> Bool .


    eq initiates(person, process) = true .

    eq ends-in(process, result) = true .

    eq effects(result, people) = true .



  view M1 from GENERIC to NKOREA is

    op process to conflict-escalation .

    op result to war-NKorea .

    op people to US .

    op effects to will-injure .



  view M2 from GENERIC to IRAQ is

    op person to Bush .

    op process to conflict-escalation .

    op result to war-Iraq .



  view M3 from GENERIC to BOMBS-WITH-FUSE is

    op person to bomber .

    op process to burning-fuse .

    op result to bomb-explosion .

    op people to victim .

    op initiates to lights .

    op effects to injures .



  th CARTOON is sorts Process Result .  pr DATA .

    op bomber-BushA : -> Person .

    op burning-fuse : -> Process .

    op Hussein-bomb-explode : -> Result .

    op Il-bomb-explode : -> Result .

    op bomber-BushB : -> People .


    op lights : Person Process -> Bool .

    op ends-in : Process Result -> Bool .

    op will-injure : Result People -> Bool .


    eq lights(bomber-BushA, burning-fuse) = true .

    eq ends-in(burning-fuse, Hussein-bomb-explode) = true .

    eq ends-in(burning-fuse, Il-bomb-explode) = true .

    eq will-injure(Il-bomb-explode, bomber-BushB) = true .



  view M4 from NKOREA to CARTOON is

    op conflict-escalation to burning-fuse .

    op war-NKorea to Il-bomb-explode .

    op US to bomber-BushB .



  view M5 from IRAQ to CARTOON is

    op Bush to bomber-BushA .

    op conflict-escalation to burning-fuse .

    op war-Iraq to Hussein-bomb-explode .

    op initiates to lights .



  view M6 from GENERIC to CARTOON is

    op person to bomber-BushA .

    op process to burning-fuse .

    op result to Hussein-bomb-explode .

    op result to Il-bomb-explode .

    op people to bomber-BushB .

    op initiates to lights .

    op effects to will-injure .






[1] Saussure, Ferdinand de. Course in General Linguistics (trans. Roy Harris). London: Duckworth. [1916] 1983.


[2] Saussure, Ferdinand de. Course in General Linguistics (trans. Wade Baskin). London: Fontana/Collins. [1916] 1974.


[3] Chandler, Daniel. Semiotics for Beginners. (see also print version, Semiotics: The Basics. Routledge. November 2001.) http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/S4B/semiotic.html.


[4] Cagle, Daryl. Cartoon dated February 10, 2003. Slate. See http://cagle.slate.msn.com/politicalcartoons/.


[5] Low, David and Williams, R. E. ``Political Cartoon,'' The American Presidency. Grolier. 2000.


[6] Fauconnier, Gilles and Turner, Mark. ``Conceptual Integration Networks,'' Cognitive Science, 22(2) 1998, 133-187.


[7] Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary, © 1996, 1998 MICRA, Inc.


[8] Goguen, Joseph. ``An Introduction to Algebraic Semiotics, with Applications to User Interface Design,'' in Chrystopher Nehaniv, editor, Computation for Metaphors, Analogy and Agents. Springer, Lecture Notes in Artificial Intelligence, Volume 1562, 1999, pages 242-291.


[9] Cagle, Daryl. Cartoon dated March 28, 2003. Slate. See http://cagle.slate.msn.com/politicalcartoons/.


[10] Grady, Joseph, Oakley, Todd and Coulson, Seana. ``Blending and Metaphor,'' Metaphor in Cognitive Linguistics, G. Steen and R. Gibbs (eds.). Philadelphia. 1999


[11] Parker, Jeff. Cartoon dated May 29, 2003. Slate. See http://cagle.slate.msn.com/politicalcartoons/.


[12] Goguen, Joseph. ``Towards a Design Theory for Virtual Worlds: Algebraic semiotics, with information visualization as a case study,'' Proceedings, Conference on Virtual Worlds and Simulation, C. Landauer and K. Bellman (eds.), Society for Modelling and Simulation, 2001, pages 298-303.


[13] Turner, Mark. The Literary Mind. Oxford University Press, New York. 1996.


[14] Goguen, Joseph. ``An Introduction to Algebraic Semiotics, with Applications to User Interface Design,'' Computation for Metaphors, Analogy and Agents, C. Nehaniv (ed), Lecture Notes in Artificial Intelligence, Volume 1562. Springer, 1999, pages 242-291.

[*] The acronym POTUS means President of the United States.