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Barthes Roland, English, Language, Philosophy

Roland Barthes and mass communication

Roland Barthes Chez Lui

Barthes and mass communication

In Communication Studies, the reason Roland Barthes can be considered an important scholar is that he applied linguistic rules to general cultural codes, from a magazine “text” to an “image” in advertisements. His approach to cultural products becomes a good example in today’s Cultural Studies, Critical Communication and various semiotic analyses of media programs or in Visual Communication field.

Books most related to media culture among Barthes’s writings are Elements of Semiology (1964), the Fashion System (1967) and Mythologies (1957). These are perhaps the most “structuralistic” of his works.

Elements of Semiology

Elements of Semiology does not analyze popular culture directly. Rather, Barthes shows his critical interest in mass culture, writing about the value of semiological analyses of mass cultural products in an era of mass communication. “The development of mass communications confers particular relevance today upon the vast field of signifying media, just when the success of disciplines such as linguistics, information theory, formal logic and structural anthropology provide semantic analysis with new instruments” (Barthes, 1964, p. 9).

With Elements of Semiology, Barthes introduced four classifications of the elements that create the process of semiological analysis. These classifications are borrowed from structural linguistics, and consist of the categories of language and speech, signified and signifier, syntagm and system, and denotation and connotation (Barthes, 1964).

Language and Speech 
Barthes (1964) applied the concepts of language, or the part of the semiological system which is agreed upon by society, and speech, or the individual selection of symbols, to semiological systems. The application of these concepts can be applied to the semiological study of the food system. According to Barthes (1964), a person is free to create their own menu, using personal variations in food combinations, and this will become their speech or message. This is done with the overall national, regional, and social structures of the language of food in mind (Barthes, 1964). Barthes (1964) then expanded on Saussure’s terms, by explaining that language is not really socially determined by the masses, but is sometimes determined by a small group of individuals, somewhat changing the relationship of language and speech. Barthes (1964) claims that a semiological system can essentially exist in which there is language, but little or no speech. In this case, Barthes (1964) believes that a third element called matter, which would provide signification, would need to be added to the language/speech system.
Signifier and Signified 
For Saussure (1959), the signified was a representation of a concept, while the signifier was used to represent the sound-image of that concept. Barthes (1964) points out that the importance of both the signified and the signifier is the relationship between them; it is within this relationship that meaning is created. “…that the words in the field derive their meaning only from their opposition to one another (usually in pairs), and that if these oppositions are preserved, the meaning is unambiguous” (Barthes, 1964, p. 38). Out of this relationship, the sign is created. Saussure (1959) considered the sign to be arbitrary in nature, based primarily on the relationship between the signified and the signifier. Barthes (1964) explained that the sign can no longer be arbitrary when semiological systems are considered. Instead, Barthes shows that once a sign takes on a function or use, it will gain its own meaning in the process. “…as soon as there is a society, every usage is converted into a sign of itself” (Barthes, 1964, p. 41). The sign can actually lose its arbitrary nature and become motivated (Barthes, 1964).
Syntagm and System 
Barthes (1964) defines the syntagm as a linear combination of signs. Within semantic analyses, this would be something like a sentence, where each term is related to the other terms within the phrase (Barthes, 1964). The syntagm is compared to the system, which explains associations on the same level, such as how certain words relate to the meaning of other words within our minds, as in the case of the relations between “education” and “training” (Barthes, 1964, p. 58). Barthes expands upon these ideas by applying them semiologically to various systems, including food. With food, the systematic level becomes the various dishes within a particular category (i.e. types of desserts), whereas the syntagmatic level becomes the menu choices selected for a full meal (Barthes, 1964).
Denotation and Connotation 
The terms denotation and connotation were used by Barthes for examining the relationships between systems. Each semiological system can be thought of as consisting of an expression, a plane of content, and a relation between the two (Barthes, 1964). A connotation then examines how one system can act as a signifier of this first relation, specifically how it represents the expression within the first system (Barthes, 1964). These elements were particularly useful for examining relations between systems of symbols, rather than just relations between elements.

Despite the theoretical discussion, Elements of Semiology offers Barthes’s own interpretation about the political or existential conditions. He recommends a “total ideological description” (Barthes, 1964, p. 46) of the culture to “rediscover the articulations which men impose on reality” (Barthes, 1964, p.57). “Semiology will describe how reality is divided up, given meaning and then ‘naturalized’ (Barthes, pp. 63-4), as if culture were nature itself.” (Rylance, 1994, p. 38)

The Fashion System

Barthes most bitterly denounces consumerism in the Fashion System. “In the Fashion System, he asked how the fashion model projects what clothes are to be worn (and bought); what effect (of luxury and availability to all) the expensive production of the magazines themselves produces on readers; how color, texture, belts, or hats, depending upon their combination, transmit messages in relation to morning or evening activities; and how we thereby learn that there are rules of dress for every occasion-rules that parallel the transformations and oppositions we know in language. Barthes expected to reconstruct all the social implications, codes, and messages hidden in the literature on fashion” (Kurzweil, E., 1982, p. 72).

Although this work is worthwhile in that the fashion magazine of mass culture can be analyzed with the same method as the so-called high culture is, Barthes failed to distinguish the commercial and the popular. Kurzweil (1982) indicates that Barthes also failed to distinguish between what is just sold and what people actually do with it, i.e., what people do with consumer goods, apart from buying them.(p.75) This negative attitude toward mass culture and consumerism was a common tendency of leftist intellectuals in Europe at that time. It also helps explain why intellectuals at that time called cultural products mass culture, and not popular culture.


Mythologies is a compilation of a series of articles, which were originally published in the magazine Les Lettre Nouvelles between 1953 and 1956. Even if it is not a theoretical work, it is perhaps the most influential of all Barthes’s writings, particularly in relation to Communication Studies. Barthes’s biographer even suggests that in France, Mythologies influenced not just journalists and critics, but novelists and the film-makers of the “New Wave,” especially Godard (Rylance, R., 1994, p.43).

In Mythologies, inconsistent subjects, such as wrestling, photographs, film or wine are all treated as myth. These diverse subjects can be bound together, as Barthes did not intend to talk about the subjects themselves, but to show how their underlying messages can be circulated and naturalized. The subjects treated in Mythologies share a similar circulation process within mass culture.

For example, professional wrestling carries two messages, “wrestling as sport” and “wrestling as spectacle”.Barthes compares professional wrestling with Greek theater to demonstrate that audiences are not so much interested in athletic contests as they are in a cathartic, Manichean performance. These double messages are shared by the audience as well. Audiences are not only accustomed to the conventions of wrestling but also take pleasure out of the double nature of wrestling. Barthes reflects that a wrestling match is not merely an aesthetic act but has ideological significance as well, just as is the case with the realistic art enjoyed by the petit-bourgeois.

In the case of wine, he argues that the wine is signified as of Frenchness or of virility in French culture but in fact, the image of wine is a mystification. Knowledge about types of wine obscures the fact that wine is not so different from other commodities produced under capitalism, and lands in North Africa and Muslim laborers, neither of which are of Frenchness, are exploited in its production.

Barthes (1972) also examplified the advertisement of soap in order to show such mystification The advertisement compares two brands with each other and sheds light on the issue of selection between two brands as a matter of importance. It blurs the fact that both brands are actually produced by the same multinational company. Through these examples in mass culture, he suggests the consistent argument that “a message is read into some substance, custom or attitude that seemed to carry its own justification in terms purely of practical use. The message thus revealed turns out to be concealing the operation of socio-economic structures that require to be denounced, both because they are concealing their identity and because that identity is inherently exploitative” (Mortiary, 1991, p. 21).

“Myth Today” in Mythologies

As the concluding chapter in Mythologies, “Myth Today” combines the various cases into a unified theoretical idea. Here, Barthes conceptualizes myth as “a system of communication, that it is a message cannot be possibly be an object, a concept, or an idea; it is a mode of signification, a form” (Barthes, 1972, p. 109) Also, he analyzes the process of myth concretely, presenting specific examples.

Based on Saussure’s definitions, Barthes argues that signification can be separated into denotation and connotation. “Denotation is the descriptive and literal level of meaning shared by most of members within a culture; connotation, on the other hand, is the meaning generated by connecting signifiers to the wider cultural concerns, such as the beliefs, attitudes, frameworks and ideologies of a social formation.”

Myth is the signification in connotative level. “Where connotation has become naturalized as hegemonic, that is, accepted as normal and natural, is acts as conceptual maps of meaning by which to make sense of the world. These are myth.”  If a certain sign is adopted repetitiously in the syntagmatical dimension, this particular adoption is seen as more suitable than applications of other alternatives in the paradigmatic. Then, the connotation of the sign becomes naturalized and normalized. Naturalization of myth is nothing but a cultural construct.

Myth is “a second-order semiological system. That which is a sign in the first system (namely the associative total of a concept and an image) becomes a mere signifier in the second” (Barthes, 1972, p. 114) Barthes defines the sign in the first-order system, or language, as the language-object, and the myth as metalanguage.

In order to advance his argument, he uses two examples, that of a sentence in Latin grammar textbook and a photograph of a black soldier. The signified of the sentence and the photograph in the first-order system disappears when the sign becomes the form for the concept in the second-order system. The sentence loses its own story and becomes just a grammatical example. The factual discourse about the young black soldier is also obscured by the lack of context concerning French imperialism. According to Barthes’s table (Barthes, 1972, trans. A. Leavers, p. 115), the examples can be drawn like below.

table 1. Barthes’s model
Language 1.signifier 2.signified
3. sign
table 2. example 1: Latin grammar “quia ego nominor leo”
Language 1. signified 2. signified
(quia ego nominor leo) (because my name is lion)
3. sign
(because my name is lion) (I am a grammatical example)
table 3. example: photograph
Language 1. signifier 2. signified
(photograph of black
soldier saluting)
(A black soldier is
giving the French salute)
3. sign
(A black soldier is
giving the French salute)
(Great French empire,
all her sons equal, etc.)

The signification of myth deletes the history or narrative of the sign and fills up the empty space with the intentioned new meaning. “Myth is thus not just a message, but a message that is political by depoliticizing. It turns history into essence, culture into Nature, and obscures the role of human beings in producing the structures they inhabit and thus their capacity to change them” (Moriarty, 1991, p. 28)

Rhetoric of the Image

As Barthes says in Mythologies, “We must here recall that the materials of mythical speech (the language itself, photography, painting, posters, rituals, objects, etc.), however different at the start, are reduced to a pure signifying function as soon as they are caught by myth” (Barthes, 1972, p. 114). He applies his semiological analysis into other visual materials. For instance, in the Panzani advertisement analyzed in “Rhetoric of the Image,” he analyzes three kinds of message: a linguistic message, a coded iconic message, and a non-coded iconic message (the cultural message). He also reflects about the relationship between linguistic message and image. He devised the concepts of “anchorage” which is the faculty for the linguistic message to control the meaning of the image, and “relay,” the supportive relationship of text and image. Anchorage and relay are useful conceptual tools in analyzing media products such as news, advertisements, or soap operas.


“Lived in the plural”

Shift to post-structuralism

According to many commentators, by the end of the 1960s, Barthes’s work shifted from structuralism to post-structuralism. Although it can be valued in that it turns theoretical reorientation from the value of the individual unit towards system, function and structure, structuralism has been criticized due to its methodological limitations. Two of the main problems of structuralism were that the overemphasis on how to function results in the negligence of reflection on history or value-judgment, and also that it ignores the individual agency-parole, pragmatic etc., focusing too much on structure or system-langue, syntagmatic. As a result, the post-structuralism school began to challenge the “objectivity” which was assumed in language as “a reliable yardstick for the measurement of other signifying system,” even though they agreed with the argument of structuralism that “analysis of language is central to any modern intellectual project” (Rylance, 1994, p. 66)

As Rylance (1994) says, “Barthes’s structuralism, as well as resuming earlier themes, contains a number of his later anti-structuralist positions.”(p.32) For example, “despite his agreement with Saussure’s concepts, ‘langue’ and ‘parole’ in Elements of Semiology (1964), Barthes casts doubt on their limitation; he realizes that it also downgrades individual language use and the model is undeviatingly controlling which langue controls parole, asking ‘if everything in langue is so rigid, how does change or new work come about?'” (Rylance, 1991, p. 40). Barthes was consistently aware of problems of structuralism and eventually gave up parts of it in his later works.

“Instead of having one stable denotive meaning, signs are said by the later Barthes to be polysemic, that is, they carry many potential meanings.”[11] In his later days, Barthes difinitely emphasized in the difference rather than focusing on repetition. He focuses more on the text, aware of the cleavage between writer and writing.

His shift can be understood as a rethinking of the biased preposition of the language systems. “Despite his anti-idealist view of the subject as a product of cultural forces rather than an origin, his hedonistic idea of the body in Pleasure of the Text (1975) re-centers the self as a transhistorical source of meaning.” (Haney, 1989, in Semiotica, p. 313) This admits the relative autonomy of the parole from the langue. At the same time, it opens the plurality of meaning. This is revealed in his discussion about writing and reading.

Writing and Reading

Barthes argues that writing lies in between the historical and the personal. The text is thus the interplay between the writer’s freedom and society. “A language and a style are data prior to all problematic of language; but the formal identity of the writer is truly established only outside of permanence of grammatical norms and stylistic constraints. It thus commits the writer to manifest and communicate a state of happiness or malaise, and links the form of his utterance, which is at once normal and singular, to the vast History of the Others” (Barthes, 1968, p.14; Haney, W. 1989, p. 319)

His thought about reading further expands the potential of meaning. He separates reading into two categories, the “writerly/scriptable” and the “readerly/legible.” The writerly reading means that a reader participates actively in producing meanings as if he/she re-writes the text. “The text which makes this activity possible resists being appropriated by paraphrase or critical commentary because it escapes conventional categories of genre, and hence cannot be read as a representation, cannot even be reduced to a structure.” (Moriarty, 1991, p. 118) A reader finds pleasure from reading the writerly text. The readerly text is opposite to the writerly, which makes the reader passive in interpreting the text.

Camera Lucida

The pleasure of interpretation by the interplay between langue and parole or the history and the individual creation is also applied to his speculation about photography. Camera Lucida a meditation on the photographic, was to be his last work. In this Barthes examined two elements that for him comprised the meaning of image, the studium and the punctum. The studium of a photograph presents meanings which are culturally coded, and corresponds to the photograph’s symbolic meaning. The punctum, on the other hand, disturbs the obvious meaning in photographs. It “puntuates” the meaning of the photograph. For example, in a Lewis Hine photo, Barthes points to a girl’s bandaged finger, and a boy’s collar. The problem, as Barthes was aware, is that when Barthes points out these details, they move from the status of punctum to that of studium.

As the writerly reading touches the creative participation of readers in interpreting the text, the image also can be the writerly text which arouses the pleasure of interpretation of appreciator thanks to puctum. According to Barthes, studium is always coded, while punctum is not.

Even though they retain their heterogeneity to each other, they are not opposed to each other. The “subtle beyond” of the punctum, the uncoded beyond, exists with the “always coded” of the stadium. (Derrida, 1981, in Knight, 2000, pp. 130-131)


Roland Barthes had lived with his mother for much of his life. After her death in 1977 he reflected, “From now on I could do no more than await my total, undialectical death” (cited in Allen, 2003, 134). In March of 1980 he was struck by a laundry truck, and died after a month in hospital.

Barthes’s thought is inter-related with the arguments of other post-structuralists. Later in his career Barthes sought to define langue and parole as discrete but intermingled entities. The interplay of the contradictory elements happens between writer and history, text and audience, or the structured and the abrupt widens the horizon of meaning.

Barthes is enigmatic in that both the focus of his work and writing style are hard to concretely define. He “lived in the plural” (Derrida, 1981, in D. Knight, (ed.), p. 132) As Todorov (1981) commented, “No one would ever again think of Barthes as a semiologist, a sociologist, a linguist, even though he might have lent his voice to each of those figures in succession; nor would they think of him as philosopher or a ‘theorist'” (in D. Knight (ed.) p. 125). Barthes nonetheless was a semiologist, sociologist, linguist and a theorist.

Barthes is important to the field of Critical Communication in that he applied a semiological approach to media culture. His thought can also be regarded as a foundation for empirical research about the relationship between messages and audiences, in that he argued for the plurality of the message meaning produced through the interwork of structure and agency. (more here )

Barthes and the semiological system



La photo-portrait est un champ clos de forces. Quatre imaginaires s’y croisent, s’y affrontent, s’y déforment. Devant l’objectif, je suis à la fois: celui que je me crois, celui que je voudrais qu’on me croie, celui que le photographe me croit, et celui dont il se sert pour exhiber son art. Autrement dit, action bizarre: je ne cesse de m’imiter, et c’est pour cela que chaque fois que je me fais (que je laisse) photographier, je suis immanquablement frôlé par une sensation d’inauthenticité, parfois d’imposture (comme peuvent en donner certains cauchemars).
— Roland Barthes, in ‘La Chambre claire’ (1980)

The portrait-photograph is a closed field of forces. Four image-repertoires intersect here, oppose and distort each other. In front of the lens, I am at the same time: the one I think I am, the one I want others to think I am, the one the photographer thinks I am, and the one he makes use of to exhibit his art. In other words, a strange action: I do not stop imitating myself, and because of this each time I am (or let myself be) photographed, I invariably suffer from a sensation of inauthenticity, sometimes of imposture (comparable to certain nightmares)
— Roland Barthes, in ‘Camera Lucida – Reflections on Photography’ (1981)



One thought on “Roland Barthes and mass communication

  1. Excellent! A very thorough review of Barthes. I was introduced to him through S/Z, and he has caught my interest time and again since then.

    Posted by Michelle Boardman | December 15, 2013, 4:12 am

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