Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Roland Barthes--Beyond Structuralism

From Narrative to Signifiance

Roland Barthes began as a structuralist, focusing on the many details of the narrative in such a way that it would be possible to map it out in a diagram. His structuralist work is well written and interesting in its own right, as one of his main tasks (especially in S/Z) is to reveal the functional/narrative mechanisms that play into all texts--even so called "realist" texts, which seem to present reality. If he would have stopped there at this achievement, he would be important, but not as important as he is today.

Reading Image-Music-Text is an interesting experience because it is a compilation of essays that range in years published. Many of these have become anthologized in either compilations of Barthes texts (not "work") or the Norton series. While the title suggests that Barthes may be moving from Image to Music to Text, the form of the book scatters itself across these topics. This method is in keeping with Barthes claim that no text is isolated in itself and is part of the "Text." In a way, Barthes  does arrive at a theory of the Text (and the reader's interaction with it) rather than becoming a comprehensive theorist of the Image or Music.

But the book is not chronologically arranged either and this must be taken into account when discussing the relationship among image, music, and text. His three essays dealing explicitly with  images, "Rhetoric of the Image," the "The Photographic Message," and "The Third Meaning" are written after his engagement with the Structural Analysis of Narrative. This movement makes sense since signifiance has no place in a purely "structural" analysis of narrative. Barthes began to see that the text is sometimes left open, containing dissonances, resonances and almost meanings. "Signifiance" or the third meaning is something beyond the limits of structuralism.


Although "writing" and "Text" will eventually become the focus of Barthes work, he also writes a lot about the importance of 'gesture'. This focus stems from his interest in Brecht's concept of "estrangement" in the theater. Brecht, as well as Eisenstein, uses the "social gest," which "is a gesture of set of gestures (but never a gesticulation) in which a whole social situation can be read. Thus, in the Eisenstein still with the fist--this allows us to 'read' the proletarian struggle.Thus,  the image takes on much more meaning than the narrative 'subject' or even the 'movement' of film: "The subject is false articulation: why this subject in preference to another? The work only begins with the tableau" (Barthes 76).


The signifiance disturbs this sort of unity of gesture and meaning. Drawing from his elaboration of "codes" in his structural days, Barthes focuses more on the vertical, paradigmatic reading of images and stills, which imply several different codes or lexias at once. Signifiance is not a particular lexia, but precisely what is between the lexias. To Barthes, at least in the essay "The Third Meaning," signifiance belongs to "the family of the pun, buffoonery, a useless expenditure. Indifferent to moral or aesthetic categories, it is on the side of the carnival" (Barthes 55). Describing the Eisenstein still of a beard, he sounds like he is engaging the carnivalesque logic of Bakhtin: "a multi-layering of meanings which always lets the previous meaning continue, as in a geological formation: saying the opposite without giving up the contrary" (Barthes 58). In other words, there seems to be a kind of undercutting or debasing going on with signifiance--a rupture in the gesture.

Indeed, this rupturing of the gesture from the actor is something Barthes explores in the essay on Banraku theatre:

Barthes claims that Bunraku theatre is signifi(c)ant because it maintains the separation of actor, gesture, and character which he finds also in Brecht's estrangement:
This distance, reputed by us to be impossible, useless, or derisory and speedily abandoned [. . .] is precisely what Bunraku shows--shows how it can function: by the discontinuity of codes, by thte caesurea imposed in the different traits of the representation, so that the copy elaborated on the stage is not destroyed but shattered, scored, freed from the metonymical contagion of voice and gesture, soul and body, which entangles our [the West's] actors
 In Bunraku theater, the "emotion no longer submerges everything in its flood but becomes matter for reading" (Barthes 177). Thus, we return to the problem of 'reading' and, ultimately, the realm of text.


We have been speaking in class a lot about the importance of 'production' as part of visual literacy. Although Defining Visual Rhetorics argues that Barthes is not aware of the material aspects of production, he enjoys confusing the processes of 'reading' and 'production,' arguing that the Text must be read to be really "produced" in any meaningful sense of the term. To really read a text means that we can also re-write it.

Consequences of Barthes Theory

What does Barthes have to offer us in visual rhetoric? Sid claimed that the work of rhetoric "breaks things apart" and claimed this is might not be the way toward understanding of the visual. Indeed, Barthes in his later work is all about breaking apart Texts (or images, or whatever) into smaller pieces, ultimately claiming that the reader unifies these elements: "a text's unity lies not in its origin but in its destination. Yet this destination cannot any longer be personal: the reader is without history, biography, psychology; he is simply that someone who holds together a single field all the traces by which the written text is constituted" (Barthes 148).

From various cultural studies, we know that this kind of "ideal reader" is a critical fiction. The reader does not necessarily unify the text. Barthes has a tendency to steer clear of particular political or social groups when he discusses encounters with texts. I think this may have been one of the things that attracted me to his text as an undergraduate, but now I see that his theories must be modified to be useful in today's critical world.

We need to work through the viability of reading an image like a "text," based in either structural, hermeneutic or deconstructive practices. Visuals, though they can be broken down into their parts, seem to have a kind of unification of affect. Should we merely go back to the rhetorical concepts of ethos, pathos, and logos? Is there another way to describe this unity (holism) of the image without resorting to the "adjective"? Can we really "change the object itself" as Barthes tells us to do?

And yet, images interact as texts do too. Images can be related to one another in terms of form, content, medium, presentation. Mitchell and others claim that word and image are closer related than we think. Words are 'image' or at least 'visual' as are paintings or photographs. Do "visual" images (as opposed to verbal images) have something "different" about them that resists rhetorical analysis and calls for a new understanding? Or perhaps it is not that they are fundamentally different, but that classical rhetoric is oral, contemporary is textual, what is visual? If we cannot use the word "Rhetoric," is the idea of 'text' any better?

The problem with 'text' is the connotations that come with it in the literary community--interpretation. Texts are to be 'read' 'deciphered' or, in Barthes terminology, "re-written." Greg Ulmer suggests that an analogy of text for the 'visual'  is Deleuze and Guatarri's concept of "felt". Text is "to weave"--is this how we understand what we do when we produce visuals? Are we "weaving" elements together to make our new creation?

In my very brief experience with GIMP, I have been playing around with the "layering" function. Layering images and objects--its more like a palimpsest (still a textual concept) or, perhaps, a puzzle? A puzzle with depth? Do we want to talk about the "depth" of a particular image (and return to Merleau-Ponty's reflections on painting?)? If the key to understanding what we would call this combination of visual communication and visual "rhetoric" is production, then we have to look at how we interact with the tools used to produce and circulate images.

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