Tag Archive | Barthes

I know syntagm, what’s that other word that ends in -gm?…

Man, the commercials sucked this year.

Definitions first, that’ll help with my summary. Actually, I’m going to post a question first, and then I’ll do my definitions.

What did Barthes mean in the last line of the reading, “… withdrawn into a few discontinuous symbols which men ‘decline’ in the shelter of their living speech.”? Specifically, what does he mean by decline?  Inflection?


1 Denotation/Connotation. This was a big one for John Locke, and it was through my prior reading of him that I understood already what Barthes was talking about.

Handsome Dude, Mr. John Locke

Here’s an analogy that works pretty well provided by Barthes, however.

denotation : connotation  ::  identification : interpretation

Barthes makes a lot of noise about the denotation being ‘innocent’ and free from any particular ‘ideologies’, i.e. the english plate and the spanish plato; save the change of spelling, the denotation is quite the same. Now, in Spain it might happen to be that calling someone a plato refers to their depth of character or lack thereof (it doesn’t, I completely just made that up), while in America calling someone a plate would mean absolutely nada, and these would be the different connotations.

2 Syntagm.

1. A sequence of linguistic units in a syntagmatic relationship to one another.

2. A sequence of words in a particular syntactic relationship to one another; a construction.

A relationship. I don’t know why, but I was under the impression that a syntagm was a smaller unit than it actually is, e.g. a sentence. They’re the entire text, so long as that text supports one maind idea–the thesis of the paper, so to speak, if it is a paper. Google produced a bit more, which I’ll sum up. There are three types of Syntagm: narrative, spatial, and conceptual. The narrative relies on sequence of events or causal relationships, and tells a story. The spatial is a montage; you read the message purely through an image. And the final, conceptual, is expository, including arguments. I thought that was pretty strange, as most arguments contain some cause and effect, but then again maybe you shouldn’t trust everything you get off google.   *EDIT* I went back to the site, and here’s a quote “Many texts contain more than one type of syntagmatic structure, though one may be dominant. ”  So there you go.

3 Anchorage and Relay.

Anchorage results from denotation, and directs the viewer’s interpretation of the picture in one particular way. I might be wrong, but I get the idea that most of the anchoring comes from the caption of whatever advertisement you’re observing. Barthes claims that it’s repressive, that it sloughs away the other possible meanings so that you know what specifically you’re supposed to take away from the ad.

I would call that a negative definition, in the sense that a positive definition would simply explain what ‘it’ is, but the positive definition mostly comes from the image, hence the ad is a syntagm with a sort of relationship arising from the text and image. I would say it’s a dialectic, and that’s sort of right… it doesn’t quite satisfy me, though.

The relay works the opposite way, so that the relationship is made stronger through the respective partners. Movies and cartoon strips are given as examples, so that a great deal of information is conveyed in a short period of space by using the images and text to complement one another, downplaying their weaknesses and accentuating their strengths. If it’s done right, at any rate.

Now, I’ve done some thinking and I’ve decided I’m not smart enough to fully comprehend a philosophical text in a week. It was the same in my undergraduate studies, so I’m going to summarize what little bit I understand from the text now and post a follow-up next week, when we’re on something else. Better late and understood, right?

Barthes is investigating the nature of images. He chooses advertising for some pretty good reasons: because the images are picked deliberately, and the messages those images are sending are also deliberate and fairly near the surface, he’s able to keep it simple when possible and concentrate on other aspects of images that do require some perspicuity.

And this is Ludwig Wittgenstein. With a name like that, your choices of profession are composer or philosopher.

Ads are subject to analysis like most (all?) other forms of communication. They have a denotation and a connotation. The denotation is pretty simple (until you get to the Vienna Circle and the logical positivists and Wittgenstein), but the connotation issue irritated Locke back in the day. The further we proceed down the path of metaphor, the harder it is to figure out what a word means, and incidentally, words are how we express our inner mental lives to other humans. So it’s kind of important, and Locke was all for keeping things more to the denotative side. Barthes isn’t motivated by the same concerns as these other guys; connotations are much bigger fish to fry than denotations, obviously, but he makes a go of a general definition by claiming that they’re ideological and culturally based, and that sounds pretty good even if it isn’t a complete answer. I do think that perhaps his statement on 282, that “This common domain of the signifieds of connotation is that of ideology, which cannot but be single for a given society and history, no matter what signifiers of connotation it may use,” might be a little off. Where to draw the line for a society and ideology is tough, especially since most people these days would consider themselves to belong to different ideologies at the same time.

That’s it for now, more to come next Sunday.

Go Giants.