The Rhetoric of the Image

In this short essay entitled “The Rhetoric of the Image“, Barthes analyses the mechanisms of meaning of the image from a semiotic point of view and introduces the famous argument that photography is “a message without a code“, meaning that the relationship between signifier and signification is not arbitrary, and therefore is not regulated by any institution or convention. The absence of the code that fixes the meaning of an image implies a floating chain of meanings that depends on the “lexicon” of each reader (set of knowledge and attributes). The meaning of an image is multiple and is not exhausted in a single reading.

Barthes describes in detail the relationship between the linguistic message – in the form of the text that can accompany an image – and the iconic message (denoted/connoted) of the image. The different nature of the two systems does not prevent the former from allowing meaning to be fixed in the latter by means of anchoring and relay mechanisms, in an attempt to restrict unexpected readings of the image or to add meanings not present in the image respectively.

More complex is the relationship between the two iconic messages, since, although the author separates them structurally, in reality they are perceived simultaneously by the viewer. Basically, what is denoted would be that which remains in the image when all signs of connotation have been mentally erased; what Barthes poetically describes as “an absence of meaning, filled with all the meanings“. In essence, photography is an analogical representation, without double articulation (all that about monems, minimum units of meaning, and phonemes) and therefore it is denotation in its pure state. The relationship between the signifier and the meaning is not one of transformation, but one of registration. However, and this is what is really interesting and revolutionary about photography, a new “logic” or spatial-temporal paradigm is introduced: the illogical conjunction between the here and the then, which gives the photographic an unreal reality: the reality of having been there, of having witnessed the evidence, and the unreality of its presence here and now.

Barthes continues to reflect on the relationship between the two planes of the iconic message and establishes that there has to be a relationship between the connoted and denoted planes, which is established according to ideology, as a common territory that groups together meanings coming from different connoteurs (the connotation has specific signifiers according to the substances that are proper to it: sight, word, sound, attitude…). Ideology connects the cultural meanings that are exclusive (and unique) to a society and a history with the denotation and provides the connoted values, while on the other hand the grouping of the denoted message in syntagmas (the concurrence of specific denotation in an image) fulfils the function of naturalising the connoted message.

Perhaps the most frequently cited part of this essay -due to its nature and practical application- is that which refers to the function of the linguistic message: the text is consubstantial to contemporary visual communication and we find plenty of examples in the world of advertising, the press, etc… On the other hand, although Barthes suggests the possibility of a rhetoric as the significant face of ideology, it is exclusively a theoretical (philosophical) approach whose practical application, in view of the difficulty of describing precisely all the connotative elements, is of a speculative nature. Nevertheless, I always find it a stimulating text because of the theoretical questions it raises and recommended reading to get into the structural and semiotic analysis of the image.

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