Saturday, August 27, 2011

Roland Barthes / Rhetoric of the Image – summary, notes and review

Roland Barthes / Rhetoric of the Image – summary, notes and review

What Barthes is essentially trying to do in "Rhetoric of the Image" is to examine and understand the messages that images contain, and the extent to which they take part in creating an ideological worldview. That is to say, Barthes is asking how ideologically charged are images and transmit an educational message to society. "Rhetoric of the Image" focuses on commercials since they contain a highly condensed image that aims for maximum efficiency in transferring its message. Commercials have to get their message across in 30 seconds and they therefore employ highly charged and intensive images in order to convince us to buy this or that product. Therefore, for Barthes, commercials are a very convenient medium in which to explore the way ideologies are reflected in visual images. Commercials have to be able to speak in a conventional language, use conventional terminology and transmit its message very fast, and therefore they provide access to conventional ideologies of their time.    
In "Rhetoric of the Image" Barthes works along the lines of two theoretical distinctions: connotation and denotation, and the internal relations of the sign between the signifier and the signified.
The signified, according to Barthes, has two level of meaning: the denotational and the connotational.  The denotation is the dictionary meaning of the sign/word and it detonates something in the real world. The connotation is the interpretative association that comes with the sign and is something which is culturally and context dependant. For Barthes connotation is a higher level of interpretation, and he assumes that being a part of the same culture involves having similar connotations to certain signs.

Additional concepts use by Barthes in "Rhetoric of the Image" are the visual and the audio levels. The visual level of the commercial is everything that we see and the audio level is everything that we hear while watching the commercial. The audio and visual level interact to create the effect of the commercial. The audio level anchors the visual level, it tells where to look and on what we should focus our attention.

In "Rhetoric of the Image" Barthes gives the example of a pasta brand imported from Italy to France. The commercial is in Italian despite the fact that it is aimed at the French customer. Barthes holds that the fact that the viewer cannot understand the things spoken does not stand in the way of associating Italian with quality pasta.
The rhetoric, the repetition of images in commercials, is determined according to Barthes by the sum of meanings yielded by the signs which compose the code and are in the image with ideology tying them together into a coherent utterance. That is, Barthes holds that the repeating images in the 30 second commercial represent messages that are already a code for ideologically determined meanings.
In conclusion, in "Rhetoric of the Image" Roland Barthes is arguing that "natural" reality is not essentially encrypted or encoded but rather that it is its reproduction is a visual image that codes it and enforces cultural meaning upon it. Visual mediums are perceived as portraying reality while in fact they are constructing it. 

Roland Barthes / Rhetoric of the Image – summary, notes and review
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  1. Thank you so much! You just saved me from this whole lot of mess! and my midterm :))

  2. I was super confused about the text before reading this, so Thank you for explaining things so well for me :)