On “Rhetoric of the Image” by Roland Barthes

Barthes, Roland. “Rhetoric of the Image.” Visual Rhetoric in a Digital World: A Critical Sourcebook. Carolyn Handa. Boston/New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2004. 152-163. Print.

You know that feeling of relief when you look at the syllabus and see that you have a nice, short, 10-page text to read?…

…And then the feeling of panic when you get about two pages into it and are struggling to make sense or each sentence?

That was me with this Barthes piece. Let me just go ahead and put it out there.

A One-Sentence Summary: In this selection, Roland Barthes seeks to answer the question, “can analogical representation produce true systems of signs and not merely simple agglutinations of symbols?” (152) by analyzing the rhetorical components of a print advertisement.

Keywords: linguistic, connoted, denoted, sign, signifier, signified, message, coded, non-coded

Barthes begins by asking whether imagesccan really function as a language in themselves. And if they can, how do images create different meanings? He then begins describing a print advertisement for Panzani:ImageWhat Barthes claims is that there are three types of message found in the ad itself: the linguistic message, the denoted message, and the connoted message. He uses terms like “signified,” “signifier,” and “sign,” which threw me off when I first read the piece because it had been awhile since I’d seen those terms. As I read, I tried to gather what each meant…do signs create signifieds? Or do signifiers create signifieds? I eventually got confused and Googled the terms for a better understanding. The way I see it now is:

Signifiers are the form a sign takes and signifieds are the concepts that the form represents. Both of these components together make up a sign. Hopefully I’m not too far off in my understanding here.

Anyway, from what I understood, the linguistic message that Barthes refers to is the actual text found in the image itself. In the Panzani ad, this would be the labels with the company name on them. Here, the text itself is denoted while having connotations…the word “Panzani” *seems* Italian, and considering other elements of the image, leads us to think of what Barthes coins Italianicity. Hmmm.

The denoted messages of the ad (also referred to as “non-coded”) are more literal and include the depiction of, say, the tomato actually representing a tomato. Seems simple enough, but the role of the denoted message, Barthes would argue, is vital; it functions to naturalize the image’s connoted messages. He claims that “the denoted image naturalizes the symbolic message, it innocents the semantic artifice of connotation, which is extremely dense, especially in advertising.” (159)

There are a lot of connoted messages at play in this ad, too. For example, the bag being open and spilling out onto the table signifies a recent return from the market. Not to mention, the image itself looks like it could almost be a still life painting. He later goes on to explain that anybody could have their own interpretations of the ad, which is a characteristic that is unique to this particular system. Specifically, he states that “what gives this system its originality is that the number of readings of the same lexical unit or lexia (of the same image) varies according to individuals.” (160) But isn’t this also true in many kinds of text–especially creative writing?

I think my main struggle with this article had to do with the language and terms used…they seemed overly complicated to me…but I am interested in how this same system might be identified in another type of image.

Selections to keep:

“Of course, elsewhere than in advertising, the anchorage may be ideological and indeed this is its principal function; the text directs the reader through the signifieds of the image, causing him to avoid some and receive others. By means of an often subtle dispatching, it remote-controls him towards a meaning chosen in advance.” (156)

“If our reading is satisfactory, the photograph analyzed offers us three messages: a linguistic message, a coded iconic message, and a non-coded iconic message. The linguistic message can be readily separated from the other two, but since the latter share the same (iconic) substance, to what extent do we have the right to separate them?” (154)

“There is a plurality and a co-existence of lexicons in one and the same person, the number and identity of these lexicons forming in some sort a person’s idiolect. The image, in its connotation, is thus constituted by an architecture of signs drawn from a variable depth of lexicon (of idiolects); each lexicon, no matter how “deep,” still being coded, if, as is the thought today, the psyche itself is articulated like a language.” (160)

Claims I agree with:

I enjoyed Barthes’ discussion on the reading of an image being highly contextual and individual. Much like in written text, I agree that there are infinite meanings that anybody could derive from an image based on their own life experiences, culture, opinions, etc. Of course, in creating an ad, choices are made to draw more people into coming to the message that the advertising agency wants, but there is no way of knowing all of the messages that a person might get from the image. In fact, this is part of what I think makes visual rhetoric so fascinating.

I also agreed with Barthes’ claim that the linguistic message can influence the connoted message. I think this sort of ties into the above claim that all people read things differently. Perhaps because of this, the linguistic message is so valuable; reading a word can put a certain image or thought into our heads that would bridge a gap that was keeping us from seeing a particular connoted message before.

Claims I would challenge:

I tried thinking back to some of the images we looked at on the Slidedeck on our first day of class and had a harder time making such solid claims about connoted and denoted messages as Barthes does with the Panzani ad. I wonder if this has something to do with the fact that some of the images we looked at appeared to be unplanned or impromptu. I think I have an easier time identifying the elements that Barthes discusses in images that are more obviously staged. Hmm….based on this, I might challenge the claim that this system can be applied to any image.

Sources helpful for this reading:

The actual Panzani ad (why is this not in the book?)

An explanation of sign, signified, and signifier

A synposis of Barthes and his work (including this piece)



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