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II A Barthesian Conceptualisation of Written Language

Theoretical Foundations

Aspects of Roland Barthes' Work

Roland Barthes’ work sits within the European tradition of “semiology”, which took as its starting point the theories of Ferdinand de Saussure (1959). De Saussure was concerned with identifying deep structures in language. He understood languages as arbitrary systems in which signs carry meaning only in their relation to other signs in the same system. This entails that signs themselves have no fixed meaning, but meaning derives from their differentiation from other signs. To explicate the fact that day-to-day language can show extreme variation yet remain comprehensible, de Saussure posited the existence of an underlying and complete system for each language—the langue—which finds varied expression in the day-to-day usages of speakers—the parole. In his work on signs, de Saussure proposed a dyadic model, consisting of a signifier, or the form taken by the sign, and the signified or the concept referred to by the signi- fier. He did not concern himself with the real-world referents that signs may represent—both signifier and signified are psychological constructs. De Saussure’s own work primarily focused on language as a sign system, © The Author(s) 2017

J. Gravells, Semiotics and Verbal Texts, Postdisciplinary Studies in Discourse, DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-58750-3_3

although the terms signifier and signified have been appropriated by later semioticians in the discussion of visual, linguistic and other signs.

Barthes continued to explore the concept of the sign, but diverged from de Saussure’s thinking in a number of respects. He did not conceive of language as fixed langue and imperfect parole, but rather as a continual process of meaning-making, where the word sign is inseparable from its social context and thus constantly shifting: he refers to a “floating chain of signifieds” (Barthes, 1977a: 39). Further, he broadened his investigations considerably from de Saussure’s focus on language, to myriad other cultural phenomena and representations. In Mythologies (1972) he proposes that such diverse phenomena as steak and chips, soap powder and the hairstyles of Romans as depicted in films are understood as carrying more than everyday functional meaning, and that such meaning is culturally constructed.

The starting point of these reflections was usually a feeling of impatience at the sight of the “naturalness” with which newspapers, art and common sense constantly dress up a reality which, even though it is the one we live in, is undoubtedly determined by history ... I wanted to track down, in the decorative display of what-goes-without-saying, the ideological abuse which, in my view, is hidden there. (1972: 11, emphasis in original)

The fact that we think that the meaning of many everyday phenomena remains at a denotative or literal level is a concern for Barthes, as he argues that a range of additional meanings are encoded at a connotative level, in other words that we bring to our interpretation of signs all the social, cultural and personal associations we have collected and absorbed through our lifetimes. These are the myths or “mythologies” to which the title of his book refers, and he suggests that such cultural myths are commonly perpetuated in the service of particular power interests. The less evident the accumulation of associations becomes, the more ostensibly straightforward yet potentially deceptive is the sign. Barthes calls this process naturalisation. This thinking led Barthes in his later work (1974: 9) to suggest that there is no such thing as denotation, as it is impossible to divorce any representation, however neutral-seeming, from the cultural associations with which it has become invested.

Denotation is not the first meaning, but pretends to be so; under this illusion, it is ultimately no more than the last of the connotations (the one which seems both to establish and to close the reading), the superior myth by which the text pretends to return to the nature of language, to language as nature. (Emphasis in original)

Barthes argues here that the more naturalised the meaning (“what-goes- without-saying”) the more denotative it appears, and this seemingly circular process of apparently transparent to densely associative and back to apparently transparent meaning is one that is of great interest in the study of representations, particularly over time. If we accept his concept of naturalisation, we can seek evidence for the naturalisation process in the language we analyse.

At the heart of Roland Barthes’ work is a concept of signs which is holistic—where signs, including words, are inseparable from meaning, and meaning is inseparable from text context and infused with social context. His was an integrated view: the sign made no sense without a knowledge of the codes or systems within which it was situated, these codes being multifarious and including social, textual and ideological codes, for example, language, dress or artistic genres. For Barthes, codes are not neutral or “given” but rather constructed and political. They naturalise—make self-evident—societal “myths”, which themselves are a product of the dominant (or resistant) ideologies of the time and place in which the communication is produced. The significance of this holistic view—from individual sign to social ideology—is that, if it can be investigated through a practical analysis methodology, it has the potential to offer a comprehensive description of how text(s) work to offer representations. Barthes’ terms can be used as a heuristic to organise the analysis of texts. The different semiotic levels of sign, code, myth and ideology refer to semiotic concepts at levels of increasing abstraction (from micro to macro level), and can be directly attributed to the work of Barthes.

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