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Following Roland Barthes, Theorize By Re-Naming

October 9, 2013


I’ve been re-reading Roland Barthes’ essay collection, Image Music Text. It’s a fountain of wildly connected observations about media built upon Barthes’ infectious method for theorizing everything from newspaper photos to movie stills, from operatic arias to Biblical anecdotes.

I was struck again at how emphatically Barthes’ object throughout is the very question of methodology.  Especially in the early essays like “The Photographic Message,” “the Rhetoric of the Image,” and “the Third Meaning—Some Notes on Eisenstein Stills,” Barthes obsessively defines all of the terms he’ll need to conduct his analysis. In fact, all that defining and re-defining seems to be Barthes’ mode of analysis.

For Barthes, naming the objects of his study is the same thing as “doing” theory.

I find that instructive since Barthes looms large as a type of master reader, an astronaut exploring the nether regions of textuality–a textonaut. The fact that these essays passionately name the concepts that motivate them (code, message, media) implies a model of reading to me.

When looking at the essays in order to freeze-frame Barthes’ naming-method, I notice that sometimes they name all the things a concept is not. They stress what certain signs and symbols are not doing, in other words.

For example, Barthes thoroughly discusses the press photograph’s assertion of objective reality. For Barthes, the average newspaper photo conveys pure denotation. He arrives at this formulation by dissecting all that these photos are NOT doing.

From the first paragraph, where Barthes announces that “in the case of the press photograph the three traditional parts of the message (emission, transmission, reception) do not call for the same method of investigation” to his many  translations of familiar interpretive procedures into “structural terms” (21), to his final moralizing injunction that we ought to be analyzing the ideologies of our culture not directly but through our culture’s codes for pacifying us in the face of life’s uncertainties,– through all of these discoveries Barthes’ primary object of analysis is analysis itself.

The opening paragraphs of “the Photographic Message” produce brilliant leaps of imaginative connection by returning quite rigidly and with an insistence on simplicity to the rudiments of etymology. As the title indicates, the premise is that the photograph bears a message. So Barthes concerns himself with the first steps associated with messages. He complicates things, of course, by pairing such basic questions like “What is the content of the photographic message?” (16) with a philosophical priority on discovery and negation.

Not only is the goal to uncover the least familiar components of a familiar cultural object, but Barthes also loves to ask the most basic questions about his cultural modes and media. Ultimately, he seems to be much more interested in overturning commonplace assertions. How else, except by worrying over the way that photography does not carve up reality into units or signs would Barthes arrive at the stupefying conclusion that the photographic image is

  “a message without a code”?

From that proposition, Barthes leisurely adds in his metacognitive way,

“an important corollary must immediately be drawn: the photographic message is a continuous message” (17).

Because writing is often an excursion into overly familiar cultural territory (as with Barthes’ press photographs), I think we would do well to take Barthes’ lead—to systematize that which defies easy classification on our way towards the astral frontiers of our thinking on a subject.

As demonstrated in the opening chapters of Image Music Text, such a practice would mean that we must ask again and again, not just what is this cultural object? But what is culture? What is an object? Not simply what is this event? But what is an event? What is plot? What isn’t plot?  What isn’t character?

And for once, let us ask these questions without being so sure of the answers.

  1. Michael Andreoni permalink

    Quite intriguing. I’m sometimes struck by the duplicity of photos. Every portrait is a job interview. We’re always so happy, our families blissfully around us. Yes, we smile, we have our lives too and we’re just as happy and successful as anyone. Photos are as much about deception as truth. I am, of course, a hoot at parties.

  2. Photos can capture how we choose to promote ourselves and our lives. Therefore, perhaps they are a depiction of the truth as we choose to see it.

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