7.03 The Lexical Semiotics of Roland Barthes.

In 'Image, Music Text' (1977) Barthes starts by differentiating between denoted and connoted meanings. The denoted meanings of an image, or denotation, are equivalent to our perceived reality. Barthes calls this the analogon. But before we can know this, "the discontinuous world of symbols plunges into the story of the denoted scene as though into a lustral bath of innocence".[1]

The connotative meanings, which are at least partly constructed by the treatment of the image, are the sum of responses to the meanings of the image. All these responses are historically derived and culturally specific.[2]

Barthes discusses the relation of images to words. The caption is said to quicken connotation. It guides and locates our reading through 'the floating chain of signifiers'. This he calls 'anchorage'. Another effect achieved is that of 'relay', the hinting at what might have gone before or might follow the image. I would add that context can act in a similar way on an image implying a preferred reading.

The reader then brings their own specific knowledge to bear which may be 'practical, national, cultural or aesthetic'. This set of knowledges from which we make sense of the world can be called idiolects. Widespread domains of idiolect are known as ideologies.

However the paradigmatic condensation at the level of connotations is ordered and constrained not just by the idiolect of the reader but by a visual syntax. Barthes does not make any hypothesis of what a non-verbal or visual syntax might be. A sequence of images can borrow verbal syntagmatic relations, but if we look for syntagmatic relations within the two dimensional picture plane we need a new approach, which Barthes does not provide.

A third level of meaning is then posited by Barthes. What we have talked of so far he sees as the 'obvious'. The third level he calls 'obtuse'. It is the zones of meaning that are produced from the relations of signs, from the oscillation between two possible readings, or from a 'spasm of the signifier'. It is the meaning of a movement of semiosis. These obtuse meanings contribute to, often unnamable, atmosphere, quality and emotion-value.

Such obtuse meanings may be produced in montages, like those that comprise much of the programme imagery from the space that produces a tension between two or more parts.

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[1] Barthes (1977) p49

[2] Barthes reviews the main procedures by which connotations are achieved, with the photographic image in mind.

a. 'Trick effects', which could apply to collage as well.

b. 'Pose', which is the gestural language of the humans and animals depicted.

c. 'Objects', these are the elements of a lexicon of signifying units. He hints that these are 'constituted into a syntax', but we have to wait until Kress and Van Leeuwen in 1996 to find out what this syntax might be.

d. 'Photogenia', which is the treatment of objects with regard to such things as lighting, contrast, focus, printing.

e. 'Aestheticism'. Any references to past art particularly the established canon.

f. 'Syntax'. This is not the syntax within the image but rather the syntax between a sequence of images, which he suggests, is particularly good as a source of comedy.