Friday, September 14, 2007

Barthes: Intro, Signifier and Signified, Denotation and Connotation

Author: Bill Schnupp

Abstract: Elements of Semiology: Intro., Signifier and Signified, Denotation and Connotation.

I. Summary

A. Introduction

In this section, Barthes introduces readers to semiology, tempering his definition with the ideas of Ferdinand de Saussure to characterize the as yet undeveloped discipline as “a science of signs. . .[and] systems of signification” (9). These systems can encompass objects, music, public entertainment, and myriad other possibilities.

Barthes stresses that at the time he is writing, semiology is a very underdeveloped area of study, “a tentative science.” In this science, no system can signify autonomously—language must, at some level, be present. In this sense semiology is a sub-discipline of linguistics: “it is semiology which is a part of linguistics. . .it is that part covering the great signifying unities of discourse” (11). Barthes closes by highlighting the four divisions of semiology he perceives and later discusses: Language and Speech, Signified and Signifier, Syntagm and System, and Denotation and Connotation.

B. Signifier and Signified

Perhaps the first thing that should be said about this section is that it is a continual parallel between linguistics and semiology, as the latter was, at this time, a rather raw and undeveloped mode of inquiry. Barthes draws continually on linguistics as the forbearer of semiology to inform his discussion in places where semiological thought is not yet fully articulated.

Barthes opens this section with the concept of the sign, a signifying relationship (or meaning, as I read it) which is essentially the union of the components signifier (a term) and the signified (its concept or relation.) Ideas of content and expression are inextricable from this process.


At the same time, readers are reminded that the sign is more complex than this basic formula: indeed, it is more than “the mere correlation of a signifier and a signified, but perhaps more essentially an act of simultaneously cutting out two amorphous masses” (56). Every element in the semiological relationship has more than one meaning. Like a sheaf of paper, each possesses a reverse image. Signs, particularly those with utilitarian, functional origins, are known as sign-functions. The idea I draw from this from this is that reality and meaning are based on use and function: “there is no reality except when it is intelligible” (42).

The signified in the relationship Barthes imposes is defined as “the mental representation of a thing. . .a concept” (42-3). It incorporates such elements as practices, techniques, and ideologies. It is this component of the triadic relationship which triggers Barthes’ discussion of metalanguages (languages about languages—that is, a discourse employed to make sense of another discourse.)

The signifier is a mediator to handle the words, images, and objects in the sign equation. It is the initial element triggers the process of investing meaning and thus making a sign. The union of the signifier and signified is termed signification. This process of making meaning is, according to Barthes’ interpretation of Saussure, arbitrary, a product of social convention. The sign can be interpreted as the value of the expression, and is a product of exchange and comparison among dissimilar words and ideas. Barthes closes with an estimate of where he believes semiology is headed: toward existence as a discipline concerned with the production of reality, fused with taxonomy—termed arthrology, a science of apportionment.

C. Denotation and Connotation

In this discussion, Barthes revisits the relationship between signifier, signified and sign. However, in this section, the relation is approached in a new way, in the relation (R) between expression (E) and content (C), expressed as ERC. The focus here is on staggered systems of signification, or those systems in which one or more of the components in the relation (ERC) is expressed by a relation all its own.

Ex. (ERC) RC, where E=(ERC). The first system lies in the plane of denotation, and the second (collective), in the plane of connotation; it is wider and encompasses all the elements. The way I read this (and if I'm wrong somebody please correct me), denotation stands for the collectively agreed upon meaning of an image or text--comparable to the signifier-- and connotation represents the accompanying ideas and concepts--much like the signified and the ensuing process of signification.

Barthes uses the discussion of denotation and connotation to branch off and further explore metalanguages, those discourses employed to speak about and analyze discourses. In this model, a language (in the linguistic sense) is a first-order language, and the ensuing metalanguage is a second-order language. The role of the semiologist, then, is to decipher the first-order language through the lens of the second, but in doing so there is a danger: just as connotation served as an extension of denotation in the system above, so too can each subsequent metalanguage serve as a segue into another and another, a self-sustaining and destructive cycle. As each language rises, another takes its place, “a diachrony of metalanguages, and each science, including of course semiology, would contain the seeds of its own death, in the shape of the language destined to speak it" (93).

II. Analysis

I’ll start by saying that a great deal of this was tough to grasp the first time around. I’ve tried to bring out some of the main ideas (or what I perceived as the main ideas) in this section.

Clearly, the roots of Semiology stem from linguistics—“there is no meaning which is not designated, and the world of signifieds is none other than that of language” (Barthes 10)—but for me the two diverge in their scope: linguistics is dedicated solely to the study of languages and the various forms and processes encompassed therein; semiology, on the other hand, is devoted not only to the verbal, but to all other means of making meaning that intersect the verbal realm. In some additional reading, I even found that there are branches of semiotics that study animal behavior (zoosemiotics), human body language (kinsemics and proxemics), and one variety that examines communication by olfactory signs. Semiology seems a literal embodiment of the connotation Barthes is so enamored of (there is more to meaning than meets the eye; it goes beyond language to engage the public and the personal to include things like music, gestures objects, events, etc.)

It is not difficult to perceive how the ideas of Barthes tie in with the ideas we have encountered in class to this point. Semiology is concerned with the interpretation of various cultural texts, and though the discipline is clearly very structuralist, I’m not sure it falls entirely under that paradigm. The meaning that arises from the triadic relationship between signifier/signified/sign is essentially arbitrary, an idea Barthes touches on—“the only link between signifier and signified, is a fairly arbitrary (although inevitable) abstraction” (54). This suggests that the meaning someone invests in a sign is largely socially dictated—a word means something because we collectively allow it to do so. Thus, our experience is dictated by the pre-approved structure. A good example can be found in Daniel Chandler’s discussion of semiotics, in which he gives the example of an open sign in a shop window. In this scenario, a passerby would likely invest meaning in the following way: the signifier, the word ‘open,’ is mentally combined with the accompanying signified concept that the shop is open for business, and these two combine to form the resulting sign, a shop with an ‘open’ sign in the window is prepared to exchange with consumers.

?My question here concerns the different meanings people may construct. Say someone outside is wearing a sweater. When I see this, I would see the signifier, sweater, combined with the signified concept that it is cold outside, and the sign, that someone is wearing a long-sleeved, heavily woven garment because it is cold outside. Perhaps, though, it isn’t cold. Maybe it’s a hot July day and the person wears the sweater because their office air-conditioner is too efficient. Maybe the sweater was a gift from a loved one no longer living and the wearer dons the sweater for sentimental reasons. Maybe the wearer’s friend made a bet that the wearer couldn’t go an entire July day wearing a wool sweater. There could be many variations in this story. My point is simply this: many of the myriad meanings for the wearing of the sweater are not socially configured; as such, personal experience seems to motivate the wearing of the sweater, and thus experience here is no effect, but a driving force. Isn’t this culturalist influence?

?I'm also still working on the idea of the metalanguage and its destructive potential. The way I read it, a metalangauge is a discourse used to discuss another discourse and is thereby its destroyer (for example, myth is a metalanguage for the language in which the myth originates.) So, couldn't, say, cultural studies be considered a metalanguage because it 's used as a means to interpret cultural texts? If this is the case, then isn't the discipline simultaneously studying and destroying its object of inquiry?

Barthes ideas, though at times a bit difficult, nonetheless fascinate me. By-and-large, his work seems motivated by the relationship between language (and other modes of signification) and thought, and how the two combine to make meaning. It unites questions of culture, psychology, reality, and many others.

III. Questions and Further Reading.

1. For you, does semiology seem more aligned with structuralism or culturalism?

2. After reading Barthes, what do you make of this statement: the limits of my language are the limits of my

3. How do you respond to Barthes’ idea of the destructive cycle of metalanguages?

It always helps me to have other readings to draw on. I found some very accessible readings online at:

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