Reversive Semiosis – The Raisin Cake Theory by A. Santoro

Artist Alyce Santoro has created a book in the form of a cake mix box that refers to an analogy often used by astrophysicist to explain the way the universe has expanded since the Big Bang. The Raising Cake Analogy, as it is often called, explains Hubble’s observation that distant galaxies are receding faster than closest galaxies.

If you picture yourself as sitting on a raisin, all the other raisins will recede from you as the bread rises. Since there is more dough between you and the more distant raisins, the dough will expand more and the distant raisins will recede more rapidly than the closer ones.[i]

Science has used this analogy as an easy way to understand an astrophysical theory. In semiotic terms, the metaphor of the raisin cake loaf would be an iconic representation of the picture we have of the universe, for icons are representations that lie on some “likeness” with its object[ii]. Hence, by taking some features of the raising cake loaf (similarity), the analogy of the expansion of the universe operates properly.

The Universal Raisin Cake Theory by Alyce Santoro

The work is commonly displayed in a shelf with several cake mix boxes. By the moment of writing this post, the work is being shown in 516 Arts Gallery, in Albuquerque, NM, as part of the main ISEA2012 exhibition. In this exhibition, the work is also displayed with a jar full of raisins with the caption “galaxies” on it, as well as several pictures and posters related to the universe.

Reversal signification

           The Universal Raisin Cake Theory is a work that reverses, or in better words unveils an operation of signification in a reverse mode that turns back the referent of a previously done sign and refers to this process using the former referent as the new sign. In other words, the work refers to a representation (representation of the universe by a raisin cake loaf analogy) and it is not a representation of the universe itself. The work does not have the universe as its referent, but the representation that astrophysicists often use to represent it.

If we hold down just to an iconographical analysis of the work (what it represents), we could be interpreting, wrongly, that the cake loaf (visual element seeing in the cake mix box) is the figure that represents the universe; however, from a semiotic approach we can discover the complex process of signification that the artwork is presenting, thus having a better interpretation of it. Since the work is representing an already-done representation, it is akin the Peirce’s idea of infinite semiosis for signs are representations that trigger new representations ant that refer to previous representations that explain the past ones in an unlimited chain[iii]. In this sense, the work does something similar to the example given by Damisch on Roger Van der Weyden’s painting St. Luke painting the Virgin, where “the painter is not afraid of showing the making of the prototype itself, placing its creator, and his model as well, in the position of what is denoted.”[iv] In this case, the artist is showing the signifying operation of a consecrated metaphor used in astrophysics.

The way Santoro shows the signifying operation of the metaphor is a reversal –insofar as that is the aesthetic impression– for she pretends to present the original sign (the raisin cake loaf) in its original enunciation (as a cake mix box), hence, using the natural placement of a raising cake dough as the new sign that refers to the first metaphor. The exercise is worth to notice, for Santoro does not create a representation of the raisin cake in a traditional sense of the term (an image that stands for a referent), but an actual object that enacts the presence of the cake loaf (the cake mix box), hence emphasizing the idea of the sign as a unit where signified and signifier (as conceived by Saussure), text and context coexist, as opposed to a representational idea that conceives signs as detached from their referents.

Detail of The Universal Raisin Cake Theory by Alyce Santoro

           This reversal is also achieved in the act of the artwork display and arrangement. I’m thinking about the raisin jar, for instance. It contains actual raisins with the caption “galaxies.” Again, this gesture is not representing galaxies with raisins (traditional conception of the signification process), but it refers to the way the Raisin Cake Analogy operates to represent galaxies with raisins. Hence, by giving back this first sign its materiality (i.e., making the sign an object for a new sign: the work), it reverses the semiosis process and furthers the chain of representation that the semiotic approach suggests.

This artwork, if read from a semiotic approach, could show the complexity of the processes of signification, reference and meaning-making that operate, in this case, between science and art. The artwork achieves this reflection by chaining a new semiosis process that refers to an already done representation, hence showing the first metaphor in a reversal way of signifying. This standpoint derives from conceiving the artwork as a sign unit, in its dimension of container of contexts, texts, representations and interpretants, rather than separating the sign from its meaning as common iconographic analysis does.

For more about the work and Santoro’s oeuvre go to:

[i] Donald Menzel and Jay Pasachoff, “Peterson’s Field Guide to the Stars & Planets,” quoted in The Universal Raisin Cake Theory by Alyce Santoro,

[ii] Albert Atkin, “Peirce’s Theory of Signs,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2010 Edition), ed. Edward N. Zalta,

[iii] Umberto Eco, Tratado de semiótica general (Mexico: Debolsillo, 2011), 114.

[iv] Damisch, “Semiotics and Iconography,” 239.