In order to lead me into the consideration of postmodernism in art and literature, I am asked to read and reflect on two essays by Roland Barthes (1915 – 80), a French literary theorist, philosopher, linguist and critic who, inter alia, expended considerable time and effort on trying to dismantle myths of popular culture. 


In this short essay, Barthes attempts to set out his view that the concept of authorship should be separated from the content and meaning of a piece of writing if any critique or assessment of it is to be valid.  The universal practice amongst critics and commentators of looking for meaning in a piece of writing (or any other form of creative art) through an exploration of the author’s / artist’s background, philosophies, upbringing, politics, etc. is he suggests to detract from the proper consideration of the piece and the reader’s full experience of it.  To consider any of the writing through the prism of the author / artist is, in his view, to prevent the deeper and more extensive meanings of the work from manifesting themselves through the input and labours of the reader.  Effectively, the work should stand alone and be considered on its own merits.  Barthes argues that all work is created through an amalgamation and crystallisation of ideas and concepts, whether in words or images or both, of those that have gone before and are therefore the product of a collective endeavour rather than that of an individual.  The reader / viewer of the work and their response to it is a vital part of that collective endeavour and of the developing meaning of the work, and to limit its potential meaning and impact by referring it back to the author / artist is to restrict the value and potential of the work.  

I have some limited empathy with this view, but there are a number of issues around Barthes’ arguments and philosophy that I am uncomfortable with.  From my reading of the essay, the basic tenet that seems to underpin his thesis is that readers will inevitably and consciously carry the author and his / her personality with them as they read the piece of work and that this will inform and shape their understanding of and response to the piece rather than the pure content of the writing itself.  Indeed, he says (in translation) that “The explanation of a work is always sought in the man or woman who produced it, as if it were always in the end through the more or less transparent allegory of the fiction, the voice of a single person, the author, ‘confiding’ in us.”  I do not accept that this is generally true.  It might well be that for the literati and scholars, for whom a knowledge of the author is part of their study and academic interest, it is difficult to separate the author from the work. However, I believe that for the majority of readers, the non-academically minded, their engagement with the work and their own personal response to it has nothing to do with the author.  Indeed they probably have no knowledge of the author apart from some vague hearsay picked up in casual conversation.  For me, therefore, Barthes’ main tenet is flawed from the outset.  

Barthes writes (in translation) that “The reader is the space on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost; a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination. Yet this destination can no longer be personal: the reader is without history, biography, psychology; he is simply that someone who holds together in a single field all the traces by which the written text is constituted.”  If this is truly what he wrote, then I fundamentally disagree with him.  To refer to a reader as a ‘space’ is disingenuous in the extreme as it implies that the reader is an empty hole waiting to be filled.  To suggest that the reader is without history, biography or psychology is also patently untrue.  All readers of literature, and, equally, all viewers of other art forms, will come to the work with their accumulated background, learning and psychological baggage through which prism they will experience the work in their own unique and personal way.   This will mean that there will be some elements of the work that will speak more fully to them and other elements that will not speak at all.  It may well be that they do not even notice some parts of the work or pay any attention to them.  The exploration of the work and its acceptance or rejection by the reader or viewer will depend on the personal prism through which it is viewed and this might or might not include any knowledge and views that they have about the author / artist.

It seems to me that there is an interesting irony in what Barthes writes.  What is he doing in his essay if it is not perpetuating the concept of author.  By putting his name to the work and by selecting his examples from those who have gone before and then putting his own spin and personal concepts onto them to create his arguments is he not making it clear that he, as author, is fundamental to the work and its meaning? 


In this essay Barthes turns his attention to images and the ‘messages’ that they contain. He uses the example of an advertising image for Panzani foodstuffs and poses the central question of his essay – can images truly function as conveyers of meaning given that they are essentially imitations (or direct analogical representations) of something else.

He starts by identifying three classes of message within the image, the linguistic message (text), the symbolic message (or connoted image) and the literal message (or denoted image). He then suggests that the linguistic message can have two different functions 

  1. Anchorage – where images are prone to multiple meanings and interpretations. Anchorage occurs when text is used to focus on one of these meanings, or at least to direct the viewer through the maze of possible meanings in some way
  2. Relay – where the text adds meaning and both text and image work together to convey intended meaning e.g. a comic strip.

After this he lost me completely and having spent far too long trying to research it and find meaning I decided to take a pragmatic approach by copying a pasting an on-line explanation (see below) and return to it later to see if it made any more sense! 

<<   Roland Barthes / Rhetoric of the Image – summary, notes and review   (*2)

What Barthes is essentially trying to do in “Rhetoric of the Image” is to examine and understand the messages that images contain, and the extent to which they take part in creating an ideological worldview. That is to say, Barthes is asking how ideologically charged are images and transmit an educational message to society. “Rhetoric of the Image” focuses on commercials since they contain a highly condensed image that aims for maximum efficiency in transferring its message. Commercials have to get their message across in 30 seconds and they therefore employ highly charged and intensive images in order to convince us to buy this or that product. Therefore, for Barthes, commercials are a very convenient medium in which to explore the way ideologies are reflected in visual images. Commercials have to be able to speak in a conventional language, use conventional terminology and transmit its message very fast, and therefore they provide access to conventional ideologies of their time.    

In “Rhetoric of the Image” Barthes works along the lines of two theoretical distinctions: connotation and denotation, and the internal relations of the sign between the signifier and the signified.

The signified, according to Barthes, has two level of meaning: the denotational and the connotational.  The denotation is the dictionary meaning of the sign/word and it detonates something in the real world. The connotation is the interpretative association that comes with the sign and is something which is culturally and context dependant. For Barthes connotation is a higher level of interpretation, and he assumes that being a part of the same culture involves having similar connotations to certain signs.

Additional concepts use by Barthes in “Rhetoric of the Image” are the visual and the audio levels. The visual level of the commercial is everything that we see and the audio level is everything that we hear while watching the commercial. The audio and visual level interact to create the effect of the commercial. The audio level anchors the visual level, it tells where to look and on what we should focus our attention.

In “Rhetoric of the Image” Barthes gives the example of a pasta brand imported from Italy to France. The commercial is in Italian despite the fact that it is aimed at the French customer. Barthes holds that the fact that the viewer cannot understand the things spoken does not stand in the way of associating Italian with quality pasta.

The rhetoric, the repetition of images in commercials, is determined according to Barthes by the sum of meanings yielded by the signs which compose the code and are in the image with ideology tying them together into a coherent utterance. That is, Barthes holds that the repeating images in the 30 second commercial represent messages that are already a code for ideologically determined meanings.

In conclusion, in “Rhetoric of the Image” Roland Barthes is arguing that “natural” reality is not essentially encrypted or encoded but rather that it is its reproduction is a visual image that codes it and enforces cultural meaning upon it. Visual mediums are perceived as portraying reality while in fact they are constructing it.    >>

I am afraid that the meaning and importance of all of this escapes me.  It appears to me that whilst it might be of interest to theorists and academics it is not something that I will be bearing in mind when I am taking photographs or looking at them and so I will move on to matters of greater interest and relevance that will benefit me more.

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