The face and the faceness: Iconicity in the early faciasemiotics of Paul Ekman, 1957–1978


  • Devon Schiller Department of English and American Studies, University of Vienna, Vienna, Austria



Basic Emotions Theory (BET), Facial Action Coding System (FACS), facial expression, iconicity, nonverbal behaviour, Paul Ekman, psychology, semiotics of the face


Paul Ekman is an American psychologist who pioneered the study of facial behaviour. Bringing together disciplinary history, life study, and history of science, this paper focuses on Ekman’s early research during the twenty-year period between 1957 and 1978. I explicate the historical development of Ekman’s semiotic model of facial behaviour, tracing the thread of iconicity through his life and works: from the iconic coding of rapid signs; through the eventual turn from classifying modes of iconic signification using gestalt categories to classifying modes of producing iconic sign-functions using minimal units; to the role and importance of iconicity for the study of the facial expression of emotion, both in terms of the similarities between iconic and analogue signs as well as the differences between facial coding and linguistic signification. In this intellectual genealogy, I argue not only that Ekman relied extensively upon conceptualizations and terminologies from semiotic thought for the creation of the Facial Action Coding System (FACS), but also that the question of iconicity is the pivotal problem across the many discoveries and innovations in what I term ‘Ekmanian faciasemiotics’.


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How to Cite

Schiller, D. (2021). The face and the faceness: Iconicity in the early faciasemiotics of Paul Ekman, 1957–1978. Sign Systems Studies, 49(3-4), 361–382.