Roland barthes and his semiotic theory

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Abstract

Roland Barthes (1915 – 1980) is one of the most recognised names in the field of Semiotics. His Semiotic Theory has been the inspiration behind many aspiring students and teachers alike. His rise to fame coincided with the release of his 1957 book Mythologies, which was a collection of essays he had authored. The public was so fascinated by his ideas that his opinion was often sort in the public arena.

Signs range from speech, body language and symbols to paintings, music and Morse code. Barthes' Semiotic Theory broke down the process of reading signs and focused on their interpretation by different cultures or societies. According to Barthes, signs had both a signifier, being the physical form of the sign as we perceive it through our senses and the signified, or meaning that is interpreted.

Barthes also believed that every ideological sign is either a Denotative sign system or a Connotative sign system. A Denotative sign, which is a strictly descriptive system, is the result of the signifier image and the signified concept combining. A Connotative sign is one that has lost its historical meaning. This could be due to a number of things including: changes in culture or terminology, an event, or even just evolution.

Semiotic Theory is an ‘Interpretive' theory that can be applied to most aspects of everyday life although most people would not realise it.

Introduction

Purpose The purpose of this report is to gain insight into the world of Roland Barthes in terms of a brief timeline of his life. Also of particular focus will be to gain a basic outline and understanding of his Semiotic Theory. This will include the key issues involved in the theory, along with its application in everyday life and an evaluation of the theory. A few of my own views on this theory will also be included.

Scope This report will focus on the basic concepts of Barthes' Semiotic Theory. It will only look into the most basic concepts as going into great detail would involve a much more involved and lengthy research process given its complexity. An attempt to gain an understanding of the theory will be sort in order to assess it relevance in today's society.

Limitations In the process of researching this topic it quickly became apparent that it would be difficult to gain a clear and concise understanding of it. The availability of ‘easy to read' information sources seemed few and far between, with the majority of available material worded in a nature that was at times impossible to decipher. It was also found that many of Barthes' work is not freely available, access to it was more than once accompanied with a monetary contribution of some sort.

Research Methods A number of different research methods were used in the acquirement of information for this report, all with varying success. The primary source was the internet because of its easily accessible pool of information. Using this method it was possible to gain immediate information on most topics, although it did occasionally have its limitations. The use of books was also another primary information source. Finding books that were easy to read was difficult but a number of them were of great aid. Periodicals were also used to acquire information although the available articles were of little use due to the nature of the language and terminology used.

Structure of the Report This report will first outline the life and times of Roland Barthes including his upbringing and education. It will then go on to outline his Semiotic Theory and describe some of its most basic concepts. This will flow on into how the theory can be applied to everyday life as well as an evaluation.

Literature Review

Book Reference One Hall, S. (2007). This Means This, This Means That. A User's Guide to Semiotics. London: Laurence King Publishing Ltd.

Summary Although this book uses fairly basic language to describe the concepts it is trying to portray, it does not ‘water down' the text so much as to make you feel stupid. Given that semiotics can be quite a difficult subject to explain, this book does a decent job of explaining a number of different concepts with graphical examples. The graphical examples it supplies helps to give a greater understanding of the idea/s that is being put across, and gives readers the opportunity to first interpret what they are viewing from their own perspective, before reading the explanation describing the theory behind the graphic, or sign. This interaction gets the reader involved in a lot of creative thinking which is a great way to re-enforce the points and concepts being laid out by the text. Given its graphical nature, this book will also be extremely useful for presentation purposes.

Accuracy and Validity The author of this book, Sean Hall, is the Leader in Contextual Studies at Goldsmiths, University of London. Although not a ‘big name' in semiotics, his previous studies, academic status, and proven track record in research goes a long way to proving the accuracy and validity of his work. The extensive bibliography provided in this book shows that he has sourced many areas for his research and consulted many different individuals. Semiotics is a subject that has no body of knowledge to fall back on. For this reason it is difficult to determine whether or not any information is accurate as everything about semiotics is subjective and open to scrutiny.

Book Reference Two Cobley, P., & Jansz, L. (2004). Introducing Semiotics. (2nd ed.). Singapore: Tien Wah Press Ltd.

Summary I found this book to be rather difficult to follow due to the nature of the layout. It is set out in almost a comic style, or storyboard type approach, which can be a little difficult to follow at times. This is also not helped by the absence of a contents page, forcing the investigation of particular ‘ideas' to be located through the index at the back of the book, or else recalling exactly where in the book that it was originally read. It is difficult to determine exactly what information will be useful from this book. Some information, such as that about particular theorists, will be somewhat helpful; however, many of the other concepts covered may not be of any use due to the difficulty of finding it again – and the comic book type nature.

One topic, which is covered at the beginning of the book, is a pre-history of semiotics. This information is extremely helpful as information of this nature has been difficult to locate. As previously stated, this book opens up with a brief history and a little about the very first researchers in the area of semiotics. It then goes on to outline how some of the earlier historical figures contributed to the early understanding and significance of signs. This is followed by an attempt to give an understanding of the concepts involved with semiotics and also includes reference to some of the more recent researchers of this field, including Roland Barthes.

Accuracy and Validity Dr Paul Cobley, the man responsible for the text in this book, is a Senior Lecturer in Communication at London Guildhall University. He has authored as number of books in the area of Semiotics as well as Communication Theory, and his record in these areas is exceptional. I have found that a lot of his work has been used as reference by many of the other information sources I have used. This shows that his work is highly regarded by many in the field, and that the accuracy and validity of his work is widely recognised.

Library Database Reference One Petrilli,S.(2008). On Communication: Contributions to the Human Sciences and to Humanism from Semiotics Understood as Semioethics.The American Journal of Semiotics,24(4),193-236.Retrieved August 7, 2009 from Research Library. (Document ID:1608836621).

Summary This article was extremely difficult to decipher and not very helpful. For this reason I find it particularly challenging to review it as it made little to no sense to me. This article was chosen more out of necessity than anything else as finding useful database articles proofed to be difficult.

Accuracy and Validity Susan Petrilli teaches Semiotics and Philosophy of Language at the Department of Linguistic Practices and Text Analysis at Bari University, Italy. Her list of studies and publications is extensive, as is her work in the translation of research done by Charles Morris and Thomas A. Sebeok from English to Italian. There is little doubt that information sourced from Susan Petrilli is viable, it is just a shame that in this case it was of little use as it was not valid.

Library Database Reference Two Petrilli,S.(2008). The Relation with Morris in Rossi-Landi's and Sebeok's Approach to Signs1.The American Journal of Semiotics,24(4),89-121.Retrieved August 7, 2009 from Research Library. (Document ID:1608836581).

Summary This article authored by Susan Petrilli and featured in The American Journal of Semiotics, outlines the work done by Ferruccio Rossi-Landi and Thomas Sebeok, which in turn was based on the work of Charles Morris. Charles Morris (1901 – 1979), is quite a controversial character in the world of Semiotics. Some credit him with the recognition of Semiotics as a science field, and others accuse him of copying the work of another theorist, Charles Peirce. Either way, the work he did or didn't do was influential in the works of other theorists. It gave new direction and recognition to semiotics and helped pave the way for future study and research. Both Ferruccio Rossi-Landi and Thomas Sebeok have helped to advance the science of semiotics but it is important to highlight that the work they have done was in most cases an extension of Morris's research. This article highlights that fact and expands on it in much greater detail. Whether or not this article will directly influence my studies is debatable, it does however, give a greater understanding about the evolution of semiotics and how it came to be recognised.

Accuracy and Validity Susan Petrilli teaches Semiotics and Philosophy of Language at the Department of Linguistic Practices and Text Analysis at Bari University, Italy. Her list of studies and publications is extensive, as is her work in the translation of research done by Charles Morris and Thomas A. Sebeok from English to Italian.

Web Article Reference One Barthes, R (1957). Mythologies: The World of Wrestling. Retrieved 1 September, 2009 from http://www9.georgetown.edu/faculty/irvinem/theory/Barthes-Mythologies-Wrestling-1957.pdf

Summary Having access to an actual essay by Roland Barthes proved to be a great help in the research process. This essay picked apart a wrestling event by applying his theories to it. It was an excellent way to explain certain aspects of the theory. This ranged from the physical appearance of the competitors and their general mannerisms, to the cultural or public interpretation of what was unfolding before them. It explained the theatrical side of wrestling and how it is catered to the needs of its audience. Everybody at the event knows what is going on because of the different signs expresses by the ‘actors'.

Accuracy and Validity Given that this report is based on Roland Barthes' theory, the accuracy and validity of the information needs little clarification. Everything in this report is based on his ideas and concepts so the accuracy needs not be questioned.

Web Article Reference Two Wikipedia.(2009). Roland Barthes. Retrieved July 22, 2009 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roland_Barthes

Summary This article on Roland Barthes was a great starting point in the research process. Without being too technical it gave a nice brief outline about Roland Barthes including a little about his works and theory.

Accuracy and Validity Not always an accurate source of information, I was initially reluctant to take any information from Wikipedia at face value. However, this did slowly change as my research went on and verification of the content was discovered. The great thing about Wikipedia is that it has its own references meaning that it paves the way for more in depth research.

Findings

Roland Barthes Roland Barthes is considered to be one of the biggest names in Semiotics and much of his work has been the primary inspiration and information source for many aspiring students, as well as teachers, in the field of Semiotics. Born in Cherbough, France, on the 12th of November 1915, Roland Barthes had what he called “Not an unhappy youth”. Less than a year after his birth his father was killed in a naval accident forcing his mother to move with him to Bayonne. Here he spent the early part of his childhood before moving again in 1924, this time to Paris. It was in Paris that he attended school at Lycée Louis-le-Grand and Lycée Montaigne, both being well renowned secondary schools in France. In 1934 he contracted Tuberculosis and spent a number of years in Sanatoriums. Although this often meant he was unable to undertake his doctorate studies, it did give him the time to pursue other interests, the most dominant being reading, “What else did you have to do except read?” He also started to do a little writing and cofounded the magazine Théâtre populaire. There was one positive to come out of his ill health – it kept him out of military service during World War II. Barthes went on to study at the Historic University of Paris, or Sorbonne, where he received a degree in Classical literature, as well as in grammar and philology. This was followed by various teaching positions including appointments in France, Romania and Egypt. He had made an intentional avoidance of major degree awarding universities throughout his career which lead to these ‘unusual' posts. In 1957, Barthes had a book called Mythologies released. In this publication Barthes used the concepts of semiotics to analyse myths and signs in contemporary culture. The release of this book coincided with the rapid rise of fame for Barthes. The ideas and concepts within the book seemed to strike a chord with scholars and the general public. This popularity lead to material from the book being referred to in newspapers, films, shows, and exhibitions. Auto manufacturer Renault found his work so compelling that they temporarily hired him as an advertising consultant. During the early 1960's, Barthes spent much of his time exploring the fields of semiology and structuralism. This was accompanied by various faculty positions around France and a continuation in the production of his more full length studies. During his career, Roland Barthes published more essays than substantial studies. He often presented his views in a concise, subjective way that differed from the theoretical approach used by the majority of scholars. It was this approach that not only made him a standout in various fields but also a somewhat controversial character. Many other academics and theorists had a love hate relationship with him. Roland Barthes died on the 25th of March 1980 from injuries succumbed from being hit by a van a month earlier.

Outline Of Roland Barthes' Semiotic Theory

Among other fields studied by Roland Barthes, his Semiotic Theory is one of the most famous and well renowned. Although he changed his mind about the way signs work more than once over his career, most practitioners follow the concepts of his original theory. Semiotics, or Semiology as it is often referred to, is concerned with anything that can stand for something else. It is the study of sign processes, meaning what signs signify and how, what signs are communicating, as well as how meaning is constructed and understood. In short it is the study of everything to do with signs. Although arguably not a recognised field until the work of Charles Morris, Semiotics can be applied to almost every aspect of life because it is an interpretation of everything around us. Signs are not only the visual aspect that we all immediately think of but also extends to include areas such as gestures or body language, music, clothes, poetry, paintings, Morse code, food, and graffiti. These are all considered to be signs that fall into the category of Semiotics because they can all mean something other than the obvious. For example, an apple can mean healthy and a crown can mean king. These meaning are however, very dependent on the context in which they are referred too. Spots on your chest need to be deciphered in a medical context and road signs will be judged in a transport context. According to Barthes' theory, every ideological sign is either a Denotative sign system or a Connotative sign system. A Denotative sign, which is a strictly descriptive system, is the result of the signifier image and the signified concept combining. In other words the apple is the signifier and healthy is the signified. A Connotative sign is one that has lost its historical meaning. This could be due to a number of things including: changes in culture or terminology, an event, or even just evolution. It is important to note that Barthes description of a sign as the correlation between the signifier and the signified came directly from the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. The best way to describe the difference between the signifier and signified may be to refer to Barthes' essay ‘The World of Wrestling' which was published in his 1957 book Mythologies. In this essay he describes the image portrayed by the wrestlers and the resulting portrayal by the fans resulting from the wrestlers' image. As Barthes (1957) states: As soon as the adversaries are in the ring, the public is overwhelmed with the obviousness of the roles. As in the theatre, each physical type expresses to excess the part which has been assigned to the contestant. Thauvin, a fifty-year-old with an obese and sagging body ... The nausea voluntarily provoked by Thauvin shows

therefore a very extended use of signs: not only is ugliness used here in order to signify baseness, but in addition ugliness is wholly gathered into a particularly repulsive quality of matter ... I know from the start that all of Thauvin's actions, his treacheries, cruelties and acts of cowardice, will not fail to measure up to the first image of ignobility he gave me; I can trust him to carry out intelligently and to the last detail all the gestures of a kind of amorphous baseness, and thus fill to the brim the image of the most repugnant bastard there is: the bastard-octopus (p.2).

This description of the wrestler Thauvin contains a number of signifiers. His physical image: “fifty-year-old with an obese and sagging body” accompanied by his general mannerisms, are all signifiers. The immediate impression gained by these signifiers lead us to the signified “... all of Thauvin's actions, his treacheries, cruelties and acts of cowardice, will not fail to measure up to the first image of ignobility he gave me”. The impression we gain of ugliness and evil by way of the signifier and signified form an image of a villain – which is the sign. This example of a Denotative Sign System is easily dissected because of its theatrical nature. The ability to clearly define the signifier and signified, and therefore the sign, is not always so easily achieved.

Application of Theory Semiotic Theory can be applied to many aspects of everyday life and includes activities carried out by most people. Signs have become a part of everyday living and are everywhere. In many societies they are essential, for without them there would be chaos. A simple task such as driving from A to B could become a real nightmare without knowing where you are going, what the road rules are, or how fast your car is travelling. The application of signs in society gives us rules and order. But signs are not always so clearly displayed, read, or interpreted. A married couple can tell each other's sad state of mind whereas anyone else may not realise that anything is wrong or out of place. A farmer can tell a sick animal from a healthy one, others will see absolutely no difference. A systems analyst will interpret the clients' needs better than a programmer (in most cases). More often than not experience in reading or interpreting a sign is essential in gaining meaning to it and a better understanding of what it is trying to get across. If signs were always clearly interpreted, the number of system projects failing wouldn't be so great; a clear thorough understanding of what is needed would be more easily obtained.

Evaluation of Theory Semiotic Theory seems to be based on a mainly Interpretive Approach but does include a small number of Scientific or Objective Approach qualities. The process of deciphering a sign involves many interpretive aspects. While a particular symbol may mean something in one culture, it may mean something different in another. It is how that culture interprets that symbol which determines its meaning. An example can be taken from ‘The World of Wrestling' essay by Barthes, “As soon as the adversaries are in the ring, the public is overwhelmed with the obviousness of the roles.” (p.2). That particular culture (public) has a clear interpretation of what they think the wrestlers are portraying. This is clarified further on in the essay: “It has already been noted that in America wrestling represents a sort of mythological fight between Good and Evil (of a quasi-political nature, the 'bad' wrestler always being supposed to be a Red [Communist]).” (Barthes, 1957, p.3). This tells us clearly that it is the American public's interpretation of events which gives the desired meaning or effect. The same ‘show' being played out in another culture will likely have very different results. This clearly shows an example of ‘Clarification of Values'.

Over the course of his career, Barthes reviewed his theory and even changed his mind about certain aspects. This ‘evolution' as it has been referred to, shows that it was very much under scrutiny and social reform. Given that it in no way could be ‘scientifically tested', many other scholars or likewise had their own opinion on Semiotic Theory – some for and other against. Either way, it was all very much how it was interpreted.

Conclusion

Summary of Points Roland Barthes (1915 – 1980) is one of the most recognised names in the field of Semiotics. His Semiotic Theory has been the inspiration behind many aspiring students and teachers alike. His rise to fame coincided with the release of his 1957 book Mythologies, which was a collection of essays he had authored. The public was so fascinated by his ideas that his opinion was often sort in the public arena.

Signs range from speech, body language and symbols to paintings, music and Morse code. Barthes' Semiotic Theory broke down the process of reading signs and focused on their interpretation by different cultures or societies. According to Barthes, signs had both a signifier, being the physical form of the sign as we perceive it through our senses and the signified, or meaning that is interpreted.

Barthes also believed that every ideological sign is either a Denotative sign system or a Connotative sign system. A Denotative sign, which is a strictly descriptive system, is the result of the signifier image and the signified concept combining. A Connotative sign is one that has lost its historical meaning. This could be due to a number of things including: changes in culture or terminology, an event, or even just evolution.

Semiotic Theory is an ‘Interpretive' theory that can be applied to most aspects of everyday life although most people would not realise it.

A Critique of the Theory Roland Barthes often caused controversy because of his often non-scholarly point of view, and the subjective nature of his essays. Barthes' 1963 study ‘Sur Racine' was one such series of works that caused such controversy. Another ‘Racine' scholar name Raymond Picard, took particular exception to this work and criticised Barthes' approach in some of his work. In turn, Barthes responded by writing an essay which implied that criticism should become a ‘science'. Generally such criticism of Barthes work was rare, and his approach often had fellow scholars intrigued.

It is my opinion that this theory is an over-analysis of what should be a simple act of reading a sign. Constantly analysing every aspect of life would easily become very painstaking and I can imagine some ‘enjoyment of life' would be lost due to this. The concept of the signifier and signified forming the sign seems relatively simple in theory and if left at that would be. The constant in-depth analysis of even the simplest of tasks seems to be rather pedantic and unnecessary – hence the reason I am not a Semiotic Theorist.

Glossary Of Terms

Amorphous – Having no definite form.

Baseness – Despicable, Untrustworthy, Treacherous.

Connotative – In Semiotics connotation arises when the denotative relationship between a signifier and its signified is inadequate to serve the needs of the community.

Connotative Sign System – A mythic sign that has lost its historical referent; form without substance.

Denotative - In semiotics, denotation is the surface or literal meaning encoded to a signifier.

Denotative Sign System - A descriptive sign without ideological content.

Ideology – Knowledge presented as common sense or natural, especially when its social construction is ignored or suppressed.

Ignobility – Not noble in quality, character or purpose.

Myth – The connotative meaning that signs carry wherever they go; myth makes what is cultural seem natural.

Philology - the study of literature and of disciplines relevant to literature or to language as used in literature.

Sanatorium – an institution for treating chronic diseases, typically tuberculosis.

Sign – The inseparable combination of the signifier and the signified.

Signified – The meaning we associate with the sign. The idea or thing that that the Signifier represents.

Signifier – The physical form of the sign as we perceive it through our senses; an image, object or word being referred too.

References / Bibliography

Amazon.com. (2009). Universe of the Mind: A Semiotic Theory of Culture. Retrieved July 22, 2009 from http://www.amazon.com/Universe-Mind-Semiotic-Theory-Culture/dp/025321405X

Australia Donna. (2009). Susan Petrilli. Retrieved August 7, 2009 from http://www.australiadonna.on.net/english/prof/petrilli.htm

Barthes, R (1957). Mythologies: The World of Wrestling. Retrieved 1 September, 2009 from http://www9.georgetown.edu/faculty/irvinem/theory/Barthes-Mythologies-Wrestling-1957.pdf

Chandler, D. (2002). Semiotics: The Basics. Great Britain: Routledge.

Chandler, D. (2005). Semiotics for Beginners. Retrieved July 22, 2009 from http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/S4B/sem01.html

Cobley, P., & Jansz, L. (2004). Introducing Semiotics. (2nd ed.). Singapore: Tien Wah Press Ltd.

Goldsmiths, University of London. (2008). Hall, Sean. Retrieved August 10, 2009 from http://www.gold.ac.uk/design/staff/hall/

Griffin, E. (2009). A First Look at Communication Theory. (7th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Hall, S. (2007). This Means This, This Means That. A User's Guide to Semiotics. London: Laurence King Publishing Ltd.

Halton, E. (1992). Charles Morris A Brief Outline of His Philosophy with relations to semiotics, pragmatics, and linguistics. Retrieved August 7, 2009 from http://www.nd.edu/~ehalton/Morrisbio.htm

Liukkonen, P. (2008). Roland Barthes (1915 – 1980). Retrieved September 1, 2009 from http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/rbarthes.htm

London Metropolitan University. (2009). Sir John Cass Department of Art, Media and Design. Staff Research: Media and Communication. Retrieved August 10, 2009 from http://www.londonmet.ac.uk/jcamd/research/staff-research/mc/paul-cobley.cfm

No Author. (1992). Webster's Dictionary. (1992 ed.) United States of America: Leisure Entertainment Service Co Inc.

Petrilli,S.(2008). On Communication: Contributions to the Human Sciences and to Humanism from Semiotics Understood as Semioethics.The American Journal of Semiotics,24(4),193-236.Retrieved August 7, 2009 from Research Library. (Document ID:1608836621).

Petrilli,S.(2008). The Relation with Morris in Rossi-Landi's and Sebeok's Approach to Signs1.The American Journal of Semiotics,24(4),89-121.Retrieved August 7, 2009 from Research Library. (Document ID:1608836581).

The Stewardship. (n.d.). Semiotic Theory. Retrieved July 22, 2009 from http://the-stewardship.org/research/semiotics.htm

Wikipedia.(2009). Roland Barthes. Retrieved July 22, 2009 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roland_Barthes

Wikipedia.(2009). Semiotics. Retrieved July 22, 2009 from (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Semiotics

Wikipedia.(2009). Semiotic Information Theory. Retrieved July 22, 2009 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Semiotic_information_theory

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