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Levels of Meaning by Barthes

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We can see what Barthes is presenting in his book “Rhetoric of the Image”. More exactly, he is saying that if you want to understand the messages that images include, and the point to which segment they take part in creating an ideological worldview you need to follow some important steps. So, firstly, Barthes is examining how ideologically charged are the images transmitted and if those images are spreading an educational message to society. “Rhetoric of the Image” focuses on commercials. As this kind of promoting any subject has a highly condensed image that aims for maximum efficiency in transferring its message. We need to keep in mind that commercials have to get their message in about 30 seconds and they need to engage a large segment of people. If for some the action is to buy this some specific product, for some cases we are talking about informing and understanding some aspects which are important for day by day life. For this category we can say that ads are created for educational proposes. Therefore, for Barthes, commercials are a very opportune medium in which to discover the way ideologies are reproduced in visual images. The second, important step which every commercial need to have is to speak in a very simple way, being able to reach any kind of person. To have a conventional language and transmit its message very fast, must keep some simple guidelines. In “Rhetoric of the Image” Barthes is presenting two theoretical distinctions which are very important: connotation and denotation, and the internal relations of the sign between the signifier and the signified. The signified, as Barthes says, has two level of meaning:

  1. the denotational – has in its dictionary sense the sign/word and it detonates something in the actual world
  2. the connotational- is the interpretative connection that comes with the sign and is something which is culturally and circumstance interdependent.

For Barthes connotation is seen as a higher level of interpretation, and he adopts that being a part of the same philosophy includes having similar meanings to certain signs. Additional concepts used 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 levels interact to create the effect of the commercial. The audio level anchors the visual level tells where to look and on what we should focus our attention. We can see that this ad is valid in all the meanings and recreated Barthes perspective. As symbols of social paradigms, cultural differences, economical standards and, even the political field, are the main actors in a world when dementia is growing and striking every second. Transferring all this information through some strong symbols and gestures the audience can make some perceiving connections, triggering the emotional side in each individual. We can’t really remove the connotations of an image and these behold a purely literal, denoted image. If we could we would comprehend the image at what Barthes calls the ‘first degree of intelligibility’, the point at which we see more than shapes. Color and form, but instead see a tomato. This would be a message without a code and crucially, Barthes identifies photography as the only medium with this characteristic – drawing, for example, relies on all sorts of conventions and what he calls ‘rule-governed transpositions’, which essentially constitute a code whereby signified can be represented as pen strokes. This absence of a code reinforces the myth of photographic ‘naturalness’ (or Sontag’s notion of a photograph as a trace of the real), but Barthes rejects this idea since he denies the possibility of the purely denoted image.

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He identifies the specific characteristic of the ‘pure’ photograph as being an object that is here-now in the present, but which connects to something that indisputably existed in the past. He sees this as being revolutionary, as a means of eluding history.

The role of the denoted image in the overall image structure/meaning is one of naturalizing the symbolic message – supporting and contextualizing the connoted elements, making them innocent. In effect allowing the image to say: “Look! I’m just a picture of a tomato! Nothing funny going on here!”.

The connoted image

Analyzing the connotations of the image is a challenging task fraught with a number of difficulties. One of these is that each image can connote multiple meanings, we saw four earlier and there are probably more. Which ones are taken, depends on the viewer. A meaning is derived from a lexicon, which is a body of knowledge within the viewer. A single lexis stimulates multiple lexicons which may or may not be shared among viewers. So meaning is constructed not solely by the creator, but also by the consumer, and the intersection of his/her lexicon(s) with the signs contained in the image. Barthes refers to the collection of lexicon within a person, as his/her idiolect.

A further difficulty with analyzing the connoted signifies is that there is no apt language for expressing or articulating them. The common domain of signifies of connotation is an ideology, which seems odd until one consults a dictionary and finds a definition of ideology as a “systematic body of concepts”. How do we talk about this, other than through language, which is itself a system of signifiers and signifies, and hence subject to all the ambiguities this entails?

Barthes calls the signifiers within a particular medium (or ‘substance’) the connotations. So, the connotations within an image are all the visual elements that can be used to connote signifies. The entire set of such connotations is the rhetoric, so the rhetoric of the image is all the visual elements within an image that can be employed as signifiers. He stresses that not all the visual elements are connotations so there always remain purely denoted elements within the frame.

My main issue when going through the text was a question about to what extent this approach to the analysis of images extends to non-advertising images. Advertising images have clear intentionality at their core – they are constructed to convey specific meanings and specific messages – and Barthes is quite upfront about the fact that this is why he uses one. We can use Barthes’ approach to unpack how this works, but what about other genres of photographs? For example, casual snapshots might have no intended connotations associated with them on the part of the creator, but might mobilize a particular lexicon within a viewer that constructs a very specific meaning, unintended by the creator. Does this matter? Similar questions arise with respect to documentary photographs. Are the creators of documentary images dealing purely with denotation? I.e. here is a picture of something that happened that I want to show you. Or, are they consciously (or unconsciously) embedding connotations also?

One genre of photographs that are perhaps close to advertising images in that there is clear intentionality of meaning at work is publicity photographs for bands. They are clearly constructed to convey specific messages to the viewer and usually are trying to ‘say something’ about the group.


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