“To Roland Barthes, the gap in meaning at the heart of the aesthetic experience opened up the possibility of an orgasmic explosion of the parameters of the self, a vertiginous liberation into the joys of an abyss outside of even the most preliminary categories of identification and location. The purposiveness without purpose becomes a purposelessness made purposeful. This is the standard strategy?or risk?of attempts to appropriate Kant post-Kant. The meaningless itself is reinvented as meaning. I don’t care that this is not what Kant meant. The problem here is that it reduces the impossibility in the quiet contemplation of the art, or it somehow names it. It gives the hole in the art an identity, even as the subversion of identity. By making the art work meaningless, it turns art into a productivity. By refusing to know the art work, it comes to know art.”

" it is not difficult to see why a flamboyant celebrity theorist such a Barthes would promote the role of interpreter over the role of producer. When published in 1968 the standard academic approach to literature in French academia at the time was based on the presupposition that there was a real, singlar, and fixed meaning to a piece of literature and that this singular meaning was the one intended by an author who was fully conscious of this meaning and his (it was usually a ‘his’) reasons for producing such meaning. It was the readers role simply to unearth what this meaning was. To destabilize the above can be seen as a radical gesture given the time and context (though it had been somewhat predated in less ostentatius terms by Wimsatt and Beardsley’s essay ‘The Intentional Fallacy’ published in the United States in 1946)"

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With righteous indignation, structuralism, and something called semiotics, a multifaceted Frenchman named Roland Barthes( 1915-1980) captured a large and influential audience with his social and literary criticism….

Does pop culture make you morose? Have you stopped smiling at television commercials? Do you have the suspicion that we are all getting more and more phony? On the positive side, are you trendy enough to be fascinated by linguistics? If so, you qualify as a member of the public for the social and literary criticism of Roland Barthes.

Roland Barthes on Pac-Man:" "In the video arcades of Paris' young quarter, one realizes a contradiction: the rear projection that naturalizes itself with an appearance of frontality—the exposed "full frontal" view that tells us, mistakenly, that we are the voyeurs of the birth of a New France. The Fourth Republic projects an image of the traditional family over the Fifth: Ms. Pac-Man assumes her husband's phantoms, and Jr. Pac-Man in turn inherits the burden. Jr. Pac-Man is born fractured, his fears and self-doubts already manifest in the apparitions that haunted his parents. One is informed by way of allusion that the holistic identity he seeks is, in fact, a spectre in itself."

It is not that Barthes was a flash in the pan phenomenon. He had a high, if controversial reputation among intellectuals in his native France since the mid 1950’s, plus a good deal of praise from the mandarins of intelligentsia abroad. What was new and somewhat surprising was his sudden popularity after nearly two decades in semi-obscurity. His ” Mythologies ” and “Essais Critiques” , which first appeared in France in 1957 and 1964 respectively were published in the United States in the 1970’s. He was a favorite of Paris literary magazines and that circle of writers who favored strands of Maoist thought and experimental fiction; the kind of Left Bank avant-garde interdisciplinary studies bordering on narcissistic pretension. In sum, his elegant debunking, unabashed elitism, and dry celebration seemed to fill a spreading need in the 1970’s, possibly as antidotes for the hokum and bland egalitarianism of the 1960’s.

"Image Music Text brings together major essays by Roland Barthes on the structural analysis of narrative and on issues in literary theory, on the semiotics of photograph and film, on the practice of music and voice. Throughout the volume runs a constant movement from work to text: an attention to the very 'grain' of signifying activity and the desire to follow - in literature, image, film, song and theatre - whatever turns, displaces, shifts, disperses. "

Barthes, though, never flowered into a chic cultural hero and tourist attraction. He looked, essentially, like an aging bachelor who resembled a deposed Bourbon monarch; who stuck mostly to his Paris apartment and was embarrassed by fulfilling any role as gawked at star intellectual. Lacking a doctorate and handicapped by the loss of six years he spent as a patient in tuberculosis sanatoriums in France and Switzerland, he improvised a respectable if unspectacular academic career.

Barthes’ writings do not provide the sort of gospel that might fire a cultist imagination. The philosophical premises are unobtrusive, and the political attitudes, while revolutionary, are not easily reduced to “pret-a-porter” slogans. His critical method is a mixture of semiotics, structuralism, Marxism ( surprise, surprise ) , existentialism, Freudianism( hanging in a like a bad rash), and righteous indignation. He  modestly referred to himself as somebody occupying a position in “the rear guard of the avant-garde”.

"What is in the work recalls or transcribes that which is outside of it, what is, or was there, somewhere: what Barthes calls, in the context of photography, the “having-been there”. It is easy, in the wake of the work of, of course, Barthes and others, to question the logic of representation. Derrida?s name is often used to under-write this questioning. But Derrida does not argue against representation, not at all. He merely situates representation as subordinate to the logic of différance.What makes representation possible is not the ability of various techniques and technologies, like those of art and language, to simply and transparently mimic what exists independently of them. Representation is made possible because of the ability of such technologies t

main open to the possibility of repeating themselves while not remaining the same."

In other words, he resisted being labeled. He might be described as a new-fashioned version of the old-fashioned French moralist, in a line that can be traced back to the satirists and rhetoricians of Roman antiquity. More simply, he can be called an unusually attentive reader, for he reads not only words but also the other signs by which a personality, class, or society may express itself; or give itself away.

The appropriate introduction to Barthes’ work is his first book, “Le Degré zéro de l’écriture,” which was published in 1953 and whose title had been translated somewhat ambiguously as “Writing Degree Zero” . By “écriture” Barthes means not just “writing” but a recognizable kind of prose, something that could be called a style or signature. The classical prose of Voltaire, with its emphasis on order and clarity, its air of being transparent, is an “écriture”. So is the prose of the typical mid-nineteenth century French novel, with its predilection for the use of the third person and for verbs in the simple past, a tense almost never used in spoken French. So, too, is the stereotyped prose of many Communists, with judgements presented as facts and special meanings for words like “peace” and “democracy.”

'Sometimes when looking at one of the many intriguing mug-shot photographs in the museum’s forensic photography collection, it is a detail off to the left or right of the main subject, an accidental or spontaneous happening that has unexpectedly entered the frame which grabs your attention. In Camera Lucida cultural theorist Roland Barthes named this phenomenon the ‘punctum’ … a part of the image that is not the intended focus but which nonetheless ‘impacts on’, ‘reverberates with’, ‘pierces’ or ‘wounds’ the viewer. In this photograph it is the casual stance of the detective who has strayed unaware into the focal plane of the camera. The detective hovers, head bowed, absorbed in the act of winding his fob watch, a step or two distant from the middle-aged offender. The detective’s overt concern with the small ticking mechanism in his hand has a serendipitous, fateful symbolism. Photography is all about ‘time capture’, and being arrested and charged for a crime, leads to ‘doing time’. For M.E. Baker, the photo’s intended subject, physical liberty is perhaps about to be exchanged for the ‘slowed time’ of the prison cell. The casual watch-winding presence of the detective, guardian of law, calibrator of time, suggests all that now hangs in the balance for the rather wan, and weary looking M.E. Baker."

As these examples suggest, an “ecriture’ is for Barthes a manifestation of an ideology and to some extent a form of double talk. To adopt the “écriture classique” is to commit oneself, intentionally or not, to notions about common reason and the universal nature of man that reflect the bourgeois ideology that began rising to power in the late seventeenth-century. To adopt the “écriture” of the traditional French novel, which is also that of straight historical narrative, is to commit oneself to notions of fate and causality that falsify, at least in the modern existentialist view, the reality of choice in human life. To adopt the Communist “écriture” is to… but there is no need to belabor the point. No “écriture” is innocent.

Barthes is particularly interested, not so much in what things mean, but in how things mean. One of the reasons Barthes is a famous and well-known intellectual figure is his skill in finding, manipulating and exploiting theories and concepts of how things come to mean well before anyone else. As an intellectual, Barthes is associated with a number of intellectual trends (e.g. structuralism and post-structuralism) in postwar intellectual life. However, at the time of Mythologies, Barthes main interest was in semiology, the `science of signs’.

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" Roland Barthes said, In 1865, young Lewis Payne tried to assassinate Secretary of State W.H. Seward. Alexander Gardner photographed him in his cell, where he was waiting to be hanged. The photograph is handsome, as is the boy: that is the studium. But the punctum is: he is going to die. I read at the same time: This will be and this has been; I observe with horror an anterior future of which death is the stake. By giving me the absolute past of the pose (aorist), the photograph tells me death in the future. What pricks me is the discovery of this equivalence. In front of the photograph of my mother as a child, I tell myself: she is going to die: I shudder, like Winnicott's psychotic patient, over a catastrophe which has already occurred. Whether or not the subject is already dead, every photograph is this catastrophe. (Camera Lucida)"

Semiology derives from the work of the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. Saussure’s linguistic theory as elaborated in Cours de linguistique générale, a collection of lectures written between 1906 and 1911 and posthumously published in book form in 1915; was philosophically quite radical because it held that language was conceptual and not, as a whole tradition of western thought had maintained, referential.

In particular, Saussure rejected the view that language was essentially a nomenclature for a set of antecedent notions and objects. Language does not “label” or “baptise” already discriminated pre-linguistic categories but actually articulates them. The view of language as nomeclature cannot fully explain the difficulties of foreign language acquisition nor the ways in which the meanings of words change in time. Saussure reversed the perspective that viewed language as the medium by which reality is represented, and stressed instead the constitutive role language played in constructing reality for us.

Experience and knowledge, all cognition is mediated by language. Language organizes brute objects, the flux of sound, noise and perception, getting to work on the world and conferring it with meaning and value. Language is always at work in our apprehension of the world. There is no question of passing through language to a realm of language-independant, fully discriminated things.

"When I read Roland Barthes' "The Grain of the Voice," I long to be Charles Panzéra, not Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. At least in that reckoning, I want direct, powerful "expression," not artifice, not virtuosity -- not art! (The "grain of the voice," where the "rubber meets the road.") Puzzling some of my colleagues, last spring, I wrote in my comments about a student's end-of-the-year playing exam, "Less art, more truth!" Presumptuous, but that's it. "

Central to Saussure’s work is the concept of the sign and the relationship between what he terms signifier and signified. Indeed, a sign is, in Saussure’s terms, the union of a signifier and a signified which form an indissociable unity like two sides of the same piece of paper. Saussure defined the linguistic sign as composed of a signifier or signifiant and a signified or signifié. The term sign then, is used to designate the associative total of signifier and signified. The signifier is the sound or written image and the signified is the concept it articulates.

The key text which exemplifies Barthes’s early interest in and exploitation of Saussure and Semiology is “Le Mythe aujourd’hui”. “Le Mythe aujourd’hui” is Barthes’s retrospectively written method or blueprint for reading myths. In “Le Mythe aujourd’hui” Barthes manipulates and reworks Saussure’s theory of the sign and of signification. He is not, however, interested in the linguistic sign per se so much as in the application of linguistics to the non-verbal signs that exist around us in our everyday life. What excites him is the possibility of applying a methodology derived from Saussurean linguistics to the domain of culture defined in its broadest and most inclusive sense.

Lewis H. Hine: Idiot Children in an Institution, New Jersey, 1924. In Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, p.50.

Barthes’s relationship with his intellectual influences – Marx, Brecht, Freud, Lacan etc. – is notoriously idiosyncratic. He rarely adopts ideas wholesale, but tends to alter them to his own purposes, extending their reach and implications. This is certainly true of his appropriation of Saussure’s theories. But how does Barthes make use of Saussure’s theory of the sign and of signification? Well, let’s take Barthes’s own example from”Le Mythe aujourd’hui”:

"The critical element of a photograph, for Barthes, is the testament it offers that “this has been”, that the subject existed in this specific moment in time and will at some point invariably be dead. Writing in Camera Lucida, Barthes tells us that “however ‘lifelike’ we strive to make it (and this frenzy to be lifelike can only be our mythic denial of an apprehension of death), photography is a kind of primitive theater, a kind of Tableau Vivant, a figuration of the motionless and made-up face beneath which we see the dead”. Barthes later rearticulates this temporal character of the photograph as the simultaneous experience/perception in viewing of the “this will be” and the this has been”. This temporal paradox is the strange, and powerful, realization that, at some point in the future, this nowâ will be the has been."

…Barthes then, is at the barber’s and is handed a copy of Paris-Match. On the front cover he sees a photograph of a black soldier saluting the French flag and he instantly recognises the myth the photograph is seeking to peddle. However, Barthes provides a methodological justification for this essentially intuitive `reading’ of the photograph, a methodology derived from Saussure’s theory of the sign. Barthes sees the figuration of the photograph, that is to say, the arrangement of coloured dots on a white background as constituting the signifier and the concept of the black soldier saluting the tricolour as constituting the signified. Together, they form the sign. However, Barthes takes this reading one step further and argues that there is a second level of signification grafted on to the first sign. This first sign becomes a second-level signifier for a new sign whose signified is French imperiality, i.e. the idea that France’s empire treats all its subjects equally.

"This is a central and particularly powerful image of myth as an alien creature inhabiting human form and profiting from its appearance of innocence and naturalness to do its evil business. Like a parasite needs its host or the B-movie style alien invader needs its zombie-like Earthling, myth needs is first-order sign for survival. It needs the first-order sign as its alibi: I wasn't being ideological, myth might innocently claim, I was somewhere else doing something innocent. His model of second-degree or parasitical sign systems allows for the process of demystification by a process of foregrounding the construction of the sign, of the would-be natural texts of social culture. Myth is to be found at the level of the second-level sign, or at the level of connotation. Barthes makes a distinction between denotation and connotation. Denotation can be described, for the sake of convenience, as the literal meaning. Connotation, on the other hand, is the second-order parasitical meaning. The first-order sign is the realm of denotation; the second-order sign the realm of connotation and, therefore, of myth. To put it crudely then, the important `lesson' of `Le Mythe aujourd'hui' is that objects and events always signify more than themselves, they are always caught up in systems of representation which add meaning to them."

The central modification to Saussure’s theory of the sign in “Le Mythe aujourd’hui” is the articulation of the idea of primary or first-order signification and secondary or second-order signification. This is central to Barthes’s intellectual preoccupation in Mythologies because it is at the level of secondary or second-order signification that myth is to be found. In “Le Mythe aujourd’hui” Barthes attempts to define myth by reference to the theory of second-degree sign systems. What myth does is appropriate a first-order sign and use it as a platform for its own signifier which, in turn, will have its own signified, thus forming a new sign. Recurrent images used to describe this process pertain to theft, colonization, violent appropriation and to parasitism:

"For this reason, Roland Barthes has argued that the photograph was intimately related to death, for the snapshot was always a reminder that the particular moment captured on film was dead and could not be retrieved. In Camera Lucida Barthes argued that this relationship to death prompted a feeling of nostalgia in the viewer, and he described this effect with the terms punctum and studium. The punctum is defined as being the one "detail" of the photograph that immediately attracts the eye, is personal to the individual viewer, and, because it is personal, is beyond analysis. The punctum is thus differentiated from the studium, or the standard, symbolic message of the photograph."

Barthes key points are:

• The idea of authorship is inherently unstable (a text always appropriates previous texts)
• The idea of an author is inherently unstable (the ‘self’ is a site of permanent flux)
• Authorial intentionality does not define meaning
• An authors personal history is not the key to understanding a text
• Their is not a fixed true meaning hidden in a text waiting to be discovered
• The reader is the ultimate arbiter of meaning

“These central ideas espoused by Barthes during this period were a general feature of all post-structuralist critique and were actually pushed further by Derrida. The idea that a texts meaning is never entirely fixed so is therefore open to multiple readings was not just a comment on authorship but ultimately an anti-theological attack on the idea of authority (author-ity) itself (this position can be traced back to Nietzsche’s Death of God and is part of the general distrust towards meta-narratives that came to be known as post-modernism following the carnage of the second world war. This in turn lead to the vulnerability of theory to the charge of the type of nihilism and moral relativism that has lead to the emergence of religious fundamentalism). This position was the critical orthodoxy of the day by the 1980’s with the rise of critical theory and cultural studies in both Anglo-American academia and contemporary art discourse. It was then fashionable to dismiss the idea of universal values as hegemonic often leading to simplistic declerations such as ‘there is no such thing as truth’ and knee-jerk dismissals of any actual position being take as being authoritarian or even totalitarian. This line of argument taken to its absurd yet logical conclusion views the espousal of human rights as an act of fascism!” read more:

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2 Responses to SEMIOTICALLY SPEAKING:A Determined Lack of PURPOSE

  1. Paul says:

    A very nice introduction. Someone brought to my attention that the excerpt from “Roland Barthes Reviews Pac-Man” looks to be attributed to Barthes itself, either intentionally (in which case, my bad) or unintentionally (in which case, you might want to change it!). Cheers.

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