‘We seem as a species to be driven by a desire to make meanings: above all, we are surely homo significans – meaning makers’ (Chandler, D, 2nd 2002:13) Roland Barthes is a clear homo significan as he constantly tried to extract the ideologies behind written language. Roland Barthes was born in Cherbourg, France 1915. He was a French linguist, philosopher and educator.He was greatly influenced by Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Jean-Paul Sartre and Ferdinand de Saussure. Barthes declare that ‘Perhaps we must invert Saussure’s formulation and assert that semiology is a branch of linguists.’ (Chandler, D 2002:20) Which Barthes went on to explore in his works. He was adamantly against the bourgeois society who he constantly tried to expose through his writing.
This paper shall look at some of Barthes most influential works on; the signifier and the signified, his Mythologies, Structuralism and Existentialism and the photographic message.Barthes expanded on Saussure’s work and stated that every sign has a signifier and a signified; he argued that you cannot have one without the other. This contradictswhat Saussure said about arbitrariness as Barthes argues that every sign has a relationship between both the signified and the signifier. Barthes called this ‘the third message’ referring to the relationship as ‘quasi-tautological’ (When something is so imprecise it becomes true). Barthes analysis’s this relationship between signifier and signified in terms of photographs.
He proposed the photograph involves an arrangement of the scene (framing, reduction) however, the sign of the message is therefore not coded thus the paradox of ‘a message without a code. Barthes breaks down the photograph into three messages. 1; a linguistic message, 2; a coded ironic message and 3; a non-coded ironic message. ‘The linguistic message is present in every image: as title, caption, accompanying press article, film dialogue, comic strip balloon.’ (Barthes, Image, Music, Text, pg 38). This can be seen again at the level of knowledge invested in the reading of the message.Barthes began production of his ‘little mythologies of the month’ for a periodical, ‘Les letters nouvelles’, later called ‘Mythologies’ (1957) this spanned over a decade of four years.
As France was becoming a consumer society, Barthes decoded manifestations of the dominant bourgeois ideology in semiologoical terms. One of his ‘Mythologies’ was a deconstruction of the ideological codes of the cover of the French magazine ‘Paris-Match’. Barthes breaks down the ideologies of this cover to what others may only take a passing glance at.The cover featured a black man in soldier’s uniform saluting the French flag. It is important to know this was at the time the French colonies where breaking up and there was a great division of opinion to whether the French colony Algeria should be given its independence. Barthes delves into what the picture means as a whole given the time it was produced. For instance, the relevance of a black person saluting the French flag in the instead of a white person. He applies semiology here and questions what is the signifier and the signified? The cover symbolises France as a great united nation of all different cultural people.
The answer to Barthes is the French ‘imperiality’: this is what he views as the connotation of the image.Barthes tackled many subjects in his ‘Mythologies’. It seems Barthes seems to be trying to disable the boundary between ‘high culture’ and ‘popular culture’. For instance in his article on Wrestling; ‘Le monde ou l’on catche’ (Barthes, R 1970) Barthes claims that Wrestling which has always been viewed as ‘low culture’ is just as sophisticated as ‘high culture’ and compares it with things such as the opera claiming it has the gift of clarity. This appears a bizarre comparison to make but Barthes protests that like other ‘high culture forms’ wrestling is a formal spectacle with fixed codes and conventions and is just as choreographed as classical tragedy.Barthes was particularly interested in photography. He considered the photograph to have a unique potential for presenting a completely real representation of the world.
He looked at how editors interpreted captions and texts in different types of mediums. Thus, these ideologies manipulated and shaped the audience into believing the editors personal application of the picture. Bathes did this by applying connotation and denotation to the photograph. In addition the denotative meaning which was described as the first order of meaning which was universal and less culturally specific. Furthermore, the connotative message was the second order meaning associated with editors personal interpretations reinforcing ideologies to the audiences.These ideologies neutralise and naturalise the audience.
Which in addiction leads them to re-buy the medium which is a positive impact to the ownership. In society today this is still relevant as magazines dress up reality of pictures in order to create a connotative message to the audience. This reinforces ideologies that increase mass consumption of the medium. However, this can be potentially dangerous to society as we look to magazines to see keep up to date with the latest fashions are we are lead to believe by the editors this is how we should look often sparking eating disorders in people trying to look like the pictures in the magazine.
Barthes’ work extended over many fields, one of these fields was Structuralism which in Chambers dictionary is defined as ‘The belief in and study of unconscious, underlying patterns in thought, behavior and social organization.’ His work on Structuralism can be seen as an expansion of Picard’s work. His work was an investigation of structure focused on revealing the importance of language in writing.
He was interested in the way language was used within writing of which he thought others had not given enough importance. Barthes believes we should look further and study structures beyond the sentence like other linguistics have done. In his work “Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives” he outlines a structural theory of narrative. ‘As Barthes notes, for the structuralist analyst “The first task is to divide up narrative and define the smallest units: it is the fundamental nature of certain segments of the story that’s makes them units hence the name ‘functions’ immediately attributed to these first units’ (Barthes 1977a,88, Chandler, D 2002: 114)These segments are three hierarchal levels; narratives (top level), actions (middle level) and functions (bottom level). The functions are the key descriptive words in a sentence. The actions are the characters and the narrative is the story being told. He used this structure to show how this combination of three is what creates meaning in writing. If you isolated each one it would not have any meaning in writing.
‘Barthes also argued that narrative is basically “international, transhistorical and transcultural”‘ (Barthes 1977a,79, Chandler, D 2002:114). Therefore it can be transposed from one medium to another, from novel to film or radio and vise versa. However, to the end of Barthes career he began to turn to Post-structuralism.
Barthes was greatly influenced by Jean Paul Sartre. Sartrean Existentialism had a massive impact on Barthes this is evident in his works were he expresses his extreme distaste for the opposing view of Existentialism which is Essentialism. Existentialism is the view that each human is unpredictable; ‘to escape determination by his past or final definition by his past or any final definition by others’ (Sturrock, J.
2002:53).Essentialism defines that we all have an essence that holds us together making our lives unfold in a predictable manner. Barthes sees; ‘essentialism as the ideology which sustains that traditional bug-bear of all French intellectuals, the bourgeoisie'(Sturrock, J. 2002:53) Barthes would often lace pieces of cultural material into his mythologies to expose how the bourgeoisie society asserted values onto others. ‘Essences and Balances are “like the Zodiacal signs of the bourgeois universe’ (Sturrock, J. 2002:53), he writes at the conclusion of his most famous book, Mythologies (1957);Barthes also expanded on Sartre’s work objecting that literary criticism was predominantly historical and in no way dependant on the nature of society to which those texts had first been written. This was a straightforward Marxist objection.
However, Barthes was never a member of the communist Party so therefore can be viewed as a neo-Marxist. Barthes wrote his first published book ‘Writing Degree Zero’ (1953) in order to show what a modern, marxised history of French literature might be like. It wasn’t very successful as it was far too short to propose such a statement. It was written before Barthes became interested in structuralism and semiology and before post structuralism was introduced which went on to greatly influence his work.
Within it he focuses on Marxism, demystification and Existialism (Jean-Paul Satre) and has many mirrorings of Satres ‘what is literature?’To conclude, Roland Barthes was an incomparable great enlivener of the literary mind. He did not constrict himself to one way of thinking. He produced many different theories and texts throughout his life time. As Barthes works extends over so many fields ‘It seems he will do anything to avoid definition…’ (Sturrock, J 2002:52) This can be seen by Barthes ever shifting views. Initially he implored the use of structuralism only to later adapt to post-structuralism opposing his initial view.
Many of his works were targeted at exposing bourgeois society who is despised so much. His theories can still be applied today to concepts in society. His most fierce book Mythologies was a collection of articles exploring the hidden ideologies in media texts.
BiliographyBarthes, R Mythologies. Mythologies, 1957 (eds) Editions Du Seul.Sturrock, J (eds). Structuralism and Since. 1979 Oxford University PressBarthes, R Image, Music and Text.
1977. Fontana Press.Chandler, D. Semiotics the basics, 2nd edition. 2002.
Routledge.1: Semiotics, essay 1 Roland Barthes, Jenny Crook