Roland Barthes In His Essay The Rhetoric Of The Image

Roland Barthes’s Rhetoric of the Image – in comics?

Posted: March 9, 2015| Author:Martin de la Iglesia|Filed under:review | Tags:Azumanga Daioh, comics, dream, Kiyohiko Azuma, manga, Rhetoric of the Image, Roland Barthes, semiotics, theory, yonkoma|

Already in 1964, Roland Barthes (1915-1980) published one of his best-known essays, ‘Rhétorique de l’image’¹. It is also a text that’s quite difficult to understand. Here’s what I make of it: according to Barthes, any image (except for those created by “illiterate societies”, e.g. ancient cultures) contains three messages, the linguistic, the literal (or denoted), and the symbolic (or connoted, or cultural). It should be noted that Barthes deviates from traditional communication theory by using the term ‘message’ without necessarily tying it to a sender: “the language of the image is not merely the totality of utterances emitted (for example at the level of the combiner of the signs or creator of the message), it is also the totality of utterances received: the language must include the ‘surprises’ of meaning.” Anyway, let’s look at these three messages in detail:

The linguistic message can be found “in, under, or around the image”. Such textual matter is always there, says Barthes (although I can image at least one kind of image where text may be completely absent). This linguistic message may have either (or both) of two functions: anchorage and relay. Anchorage means, the text clarifies or “fixes” the meaning of the image, which is always polysemous, by choosing some of the possible signifieds and “banishing” others. The relay function is less common and puts the text in a “complementary relationship” with the image – Barthes explicitly mentions comic strip dialogues as an example.²

The literal or denoted message consists of the objects depicted in the image, stripped of all symbolic meaning. It conveys nothing but a consciousness of the “being-there” of the represented things. (Barthes is particularly concerned with photography here, which additionally implies “an awareness of […] having-been-there” and a tension between “spatial immediacy and temporal anteriority”.) According to Barthes, little more than “anthropological knowledge” is required to recognise the objects in the image on this level, although I doubt it’s always as easy as that.

Finally, the symbolic message contains the signifieds (or ‘meanings’, colloquially speaking) of the image. In contrast to the literal message, more specialised kinds of knowledge may be required to decipher this message, but different “readings” of the same image are still legitimate. The totality of signifiers in an image, by the way, is what Barthes calls the eponymous ‘rhetoric’. It’s also noteworthy that Barthes seems to think that in some instances (e.g. advertisement photography, his principal example) we may even realise signifieds invested by the sender/creator of the image, i.e. recognise the creator’s intention (and there we have the good old sender-message-recipient model again).

Let’s see if we can read a panel from a comic in this way.

This is the first panel of one of my favourite Azumanga Daioh (あずまんが大王) strips, by Kiyohiko Azuma. On the literal level, we can identify all the objects depicted: the face of Osaka (one of the main characters), her hair and part of her neck, and a bed with its various components. We are also able to tell the flower pattern on the blanket apart from ‘real’ flowers-as-objects. I think we’re still within the realm of the denoted message when we say: this is a sleeping girl.

Before we tackle the symbolic message (even though literal and symbolic message are perceived simultaneously, says Barthes), let’s look at the linguistic message. There is no writing in this panel, but in this case, Barthes is right when he says there’s always some writing nearby. Consider the complete four-panel strip (from the German edition published by Tokyopop):

There is a heading above the panel and a speech bubble in the fourth panel. The heading reads “Osaka’s New Year’s dream” and tells us that rather than just watching Osaka sleep, we are about to learn what she’s dreaming of. The speech bubble says, “Chiyo, how come you’re able to fly?” Now we need to recall the knowledge of writing that is located even further away from our panel: in previous episodes, Osaka already had weird ideas about the character Chiyo and her plaits. With this knowledge in mind, we can almost guess Osaka’s dream (and indeed, in the next strip we see how Chiyo’s flapping bunches enable her to fly in Osaka’s dream). I’d say this is an example of anchorage: without the writing, the meaning of the image would be unclear.

As for the symbolic message, we need to take into account once more previous episodes, which established Osaka as a slow character who often has wondrous or naive thoughts. This strip is not funny because of the absurd idea of a flying girl – after all, such illogical ideas are common in everyone’s dreams – but because it’s such a typical thing for Osaka to think, no matter whether she’s asleep or awake. The symbolic message may well be to invoke Osaka’s characteristics in order to convey humour. In the last panel, the invoked characteristic are her weird ideas, but in the first panel, which is repeated twice almost unchanged, it’s probably Osaka’s slowness. When in a later episode the livelier character Tomo is shown dreaming her own “New Year’s dream”, one panel of her sleeping in bed is enough to indicate that the following panels show her dream.

So that was, if I got it right, a basic application of Barthes’s theory to a comic panel. A more interesting example would be a panel in which literal message and symbolic message are at odds with each other, or in which the linguistic message acts as relay rather than anchorage. I’m sure there are plenty of such examples once one starts looking.

¹ I’m using Stephen Heath’s translation, “Rhetoric of the Image”, in: Roland Barthes, Image – Music – Text, New York 1977, pp. 32-51.

² Comics Studies have later developed more elaborate systems of the relationship between scriptorial and pictorial elements in comics. See e.g. Nathalie Mälzer’s recent conference paper.

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Roland Barthes

The work of Roland Barthes (1915-80), the cultural theorist and analyst, embraces a wide range of cultural phenomena, including advertising, fashion, food, and wrestling. He focused on cultural phenomena as language systems, and for this reason we might think of him as a structuralist. In these notes, I provide a short profile of this influential figure, together with a synopsis of his seminal essay, "Rhetoric of the Image," a model for semiological analysis of all kinds. See also my notes on semiology.

* * * * *

This cultural theorist and analyst was born in Cherbourg, a port-city northwest of Paris. His parents were Louis Barthes, a naval officer, and Henriette Binger. His father died in 1916, during combat in the North Sea. In 1924, Barthes and his mother moved to Paris, where he attended (1924-30) the Lycee Montaigne. Unfortunately, he spent long periods of his youth in sanatoriums, undergoing treatment for TB. When he recovered, he studied (1935-39) French and the classics at the University of Paris. He was exempted from military service during WW II (he was ill with TB during the period 1941-47). Later, when he wasn't undergoing treatment for TB, he taught at a variety of schools, including the Lycees Voltaire and Carnot. He taught at universities in Rumania (1948-49) and Egypt (1949-50) before he joined (in 1952) the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, where he devoted his time to sociology and lexicology.

Barthes' academic career fell into three phases. During the first phase, he concentrated on demystifying the stereotypes of bourgeois culture (as he put it). For example, in Writing degree Zero (1953), Barthes examined the link between writing and biography: he studied the historical conditions of literary language and the difficulty of a modern practice of writing. Committed to language, he argued, the writer is at once caught up in particular discursive orders, the socially instituted forms of writing, a set of signs (a myth) of literature--hence the search for an unmarked language, before the closure of myth, a writing degree zero.

During the years 1954-56, Barthes wrote a series of essays for the magazine called Les Lettres nouvelles, in which he exposed a "Mythology of the Month," i.e., he showed how the denotations in the signs of popular culture betray connotations which are themselves "myths" generated by the larger sign system that makes up society. The book which contains these studies of everyday signs--appropriately enough, it is entitled Mythologies (1957)--offers his meditations on many topics, such as striptease, the New Citroen, steak and chips, and so on. In each essay, he takes a seemingly unnoticed phenomenon from everyday life and deconstructs it, i.e., shows that the "obvious" connotations which it carries have been carefully constructed. This account of contemporary myth involved Barthes in the development of semiology.

During the second phase, the semiotics phase dating from 1956, he took over Saussure's concept of the sign, together with the concept of language as a sign system, producing work which can be regarded as an appendix to Mythologies. During this period, Barthes produced such works as Elements of Semiology (1964), and The Fashion System (1967), adapting Saussure's model to the study of cultural phenomena other than language. During this period, he became (in 1962) Directeur d'Etudes in the VIth section of the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, where he devoted his time to the "sociology of signs, symbols, and representations."

The third phase began with the publication of S/Z (1970), marking a shift from Saussurean semiology to a theory of "the text," which he defined as a field of the signifier and of the symbolic. S/Z is a reading of Balzac's novel Sarrasine, plotting the migration of five "codes," understood as open groupings of signifieds and as points of crossing with other texts. The distinction between "the writable" and "the readable," between what can be written/rewritten today, i.e., actively produced by the reader, and what can no longer be written but only read, i.e., passively consumed, provides a new basis for evaluation. Barthes extends this idea in The Pleasure of the Text (1973) via the body as text and language as an object of desire. During this period, he wrote books as fragments, suggesting his retreat from what might be called the discourse of power, as caught in the subject/object relationship and the habits of rhetoric. He tried to distinguish "the ideological" from "the aesthetic," between the language of science, which deals with stable meanings and which is identified with the sign, and the language of writing, which aims as displacement, dispersion. He offers a "textual" reading of himself in Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes (1975). In 1976, he became professor of "literary semiology" at the College de France. In his last book, Camera Lucinda (1980), he reflects on the levels of meaning of the photograph.

Barthes died on 26 March 1980, having been knocked over by a laundry van (reports suggest that the driver was drunk).

As we have seen, Barthes' work ranged widely, but always it exerted an enormous impact on modern critical thought, on literary studies and semiotics especially. What follows is a synopsis of his essay, "The Rhetoric of the Image" (1964), which provides a conceptual framework for studying word-and-image relations in cultural artifacts.

To begin with (Barthes points out), the most important problem facing the semiology of images is: Can analogical representation (the "copy") produce true systems of signs? Can we think of an analogical "code" (as opposed to a digital one)? It must be remembered that any system constitutes a language only if it is doubly articulated (Barthes, 1977, p. 32). Let's start with an advertising image: the signification of the image is undoubtedly intentional. Doubtless, the signs are full, formed with a view to optimum reading.

Here we have an advertisement for Panzani pasta: some packets of pasta, a tin [of concentrate], a sachet, some tomatoes, and onions, peppers, and mushrooms, all emerging from a half-open string bag, in yellows and greens on a red background. We begin by skimming off the different messages it contains.

1. the linguistic message

This (first) message is made up of all the words in the advertisement, i.e., the caption and the labels, these being inserted into the scene (p.33):

The denotational message: The code from which this message has been taken is that of the French language.

The connotational message: The sign "Panzani" yields by its assonance another signified, i.e., "Italianicity."

2. The literal image

This message yields a series of discontinuous signs. It should be remembered that the order of these signs (outlined below) is not important; they are not linear.

The first sign: the scene represents the idea of a return from the market, a signified which implies two values: that of the freshness of the products and that of the domestic preparation for which they are destined. Its signifier is the half open bag, which lets the contents spill out over the table, "unpacked" as it were. To read this sign, we have to understand the widespread culture of "shopping for yourself," as opposed to the "stocking up" of a more technological civilization.

The second sign: its signifier is the bringing together of red (tomato), green (pepper), and yellow, the colors of the poster, i.e., the red, green, and yellow of Italy or rather "Italianicity." This sign stands in a relation of redundancy with the connoted sign of the linguistic message, i.e., the assonance of the name Panzani. The knowledge it draws on is specifically French. An Italian would barely notice the connotation of the name because it is based on a familiarity with certain tourist stereotypes (p. 34).

The third sign: the serried collection of objects which transmits the idea of a total culinary service, as though (i) Panzani furnishes everything that is needed for a balanced meal and (ii) the concentrate in the tin were equivalent to the natural produce surrounding it (pp. 34-35).

The fourth sign: the composition of the image conveys an aesthetic signified, namely, the still life. Note: some signs tell us that this is an advertisement, i.e., place of the image in the magazine and the emphasis of the labels, not to mention the caption (p. 35).

Thus, four signs comprise this image. We will assume that together they form a coherent whole. After the linguistic message, then, we see a second, iconic message.

3. The Symbolic Image

The symbolic message is in fact the second "iconic" message. The signifiers of this (the third) message are constituted by the real objects in the scene: the signifiers have been photographed. The sign of this message is not drawn from a institutional stock: it is not coded (p. 36). Here were we confront the paradox of a message without a code. All the knowledge we need to read this message is bound up with our perception: We need to know what an image is and what the objects are. The first message is literal; the second message is symbolic (p. 36).

If this reading is adequate, we can say (by way of summary) that the photograph yields three messages: (1) a linguistic message, all the words in the advertisement; (2) a coded-iconic message, the visual connotations derived from the arrangement of photographed elements; and (3) a non-coded iconic message, the "literal" denotation, the recognition of identifiable objects in the photograph, irrespective of the larger societal code. Notice that the linguistic message (1) can be detached from messages (2) and (3); that messages (2) and (3) share the same (iconic) substance.

However, it should be obvious that the distinction between (2) and (3) is not easily made. The viewer receives at one and the same time the perceptual message and the cultural message. This confusion in reading these iconic images corresponds to the function of the mass image (pp. 36-37).

This distinction has an operational validity, analogous to that which allows the distinction in the linguistic sign of a signifier and a signified.

What is at issue at this point is not a naive analysis but a structural description of the messages, one which grasps the principle tying the elements together: the linguistic, the literal (denoted), and the symbolic (connoted). We are thus interested in the inter-relationships of the three messages. The first (literal) iconic image is in some way imprinted on the second (iconic) image.

1. The linguistic message

Since the appearance of the book, text and image have been linked. Today, the linguistic message is present in every image, as title, caption, accompanying press article, film dialogue, comic strip balloon, and so on. It would seem that we are still a civilization of writing (p. 38). What are the functions of the linguistic message with regard to the (twofold) iconic message? We can identify two:


All images are polysemous: they imply a "floating chain" of signifieds. Every society develops techniques to fix the floating chain of signifieds in such a way as to counter the terror of uncertain signs. The linguistic message serves as one of these techniques (pp. 38-39).

At the level of the literal message, the text answers the question: What is it? This text thus helps us focus our attention, in terms of identification and interpretation. The text directs the reader through the signifieds of the image, causing him to avoid some and to receive others. Thus, the text directs the reader to a message (ideology) chosen in advance (p. 40).

In all these cases (of anchorage), language serves to elucidate (in a selective way). Language thus serves as a means of control. Note: Anchorage is the most frequent function of the linguistic message; it is commonly found in press photographs as well as advertisements (pp. 40-41).


Here (in cartoons and comic strips) text (a snatch of dialogue say) and image stand in a complementary relationship. The words, as well as the images, are fragments of a more general syntagm, and the unity of the message is realized at a higher level, namely, at the level of the story, the anecdote, the diegesis (p. 41).

This relay-text is very important in film, where dialogue serves not simply to elucidate but to advance the action by setting out (in the sequence of messages) meanings that are not to be found in the image itself. Obviously, the two functions of the linguistic message can co-exist in the iconic message, but the dominance of the one or the other is of consequence for the general economy of a work (p. 41).

2. The denoted image

We have seen that, in the image, the distinction between the literal message and the symbolic message is operational. We never encounter (at least in advertizing) a literal image in a pure state. This is "message by eviction," constituted by what is left in the image when the signs of connotation are mentally deleted. Only the photograph is able to transmit literal information without forming it by means of discontinuous signs and rules of transformation (pp. 42-43).

In its literal state, the photograph (a message without a code) must be opposed to the drawing (a message with a code). The coded nature of the drawing can be seen at three levels:

  • A set of rule-governed transpositions is needed to reproduce an object or a scene. Thus, the codes of transposition are historical, notably those concerning perspective (p. 43).
  • The operation of the drawing, i.e., the coding, immediately necessitates a certain division between the significant and the insignificant. The drawing does not reproduce everything. A drawing can reproduce very little and still be a strong message. The photographer has to use trick effects as it were to achieve the same results. The denotation of the drawing is not as pure as that of the photograph (we can't have drawing without style).
  • Like all codes, the drawing demands an apprenticeship. The execution of the drawing constitutes a connotation. In the photograph, at the level of the literal message: the relationship of the signifieds to the signifiers is not one of transformation but of recording, i.e., the scene is there, captured mechanically not humanly (p. 44).

3. The Connoted image

Our interventions in the photograph (framing, distance, lighting, focus, speed) all effectively belong to the plane of connotation. The type of consciousness the photograph involves is unprecedented: having-been-there, as opposed to being-there, i.e., a new space-time category. At the level of denotation: the message without code, we can understand the real unreality of the photograph. This is the unreality of here-now.

Film should be distinguished from photograph vis-a-vis this opposition. Film can no longer be seen as animated photographs. The having-been-there gives way to being-there. This means that the denoted image naturalizes the symbolic message: it innocents the semantic artifice of connotation, which in advertizing is extremely dense. Although the Panzani poster is full of "symbols," a kind of natural being-there of objects remains (in the photograph). Nature seems spontaneously to produce the scene represented (p. 45).

The (historical) paradox is: The more technology promotes the diffusion of information (and notably of images), the more it provides the means of masking the constructed meaning under the appearance of the given meaning (p. 46).

We have seen that the signs of the third message (the symbolic or cultural message) are discontinuous. Even when the signifier seems to extend over the whole image, it is nonetheless a sign separated from the others. The composition carries an aesthetic signified, in much the same way as intonation is a separate signifier in language.

We are dealing with a normal system whose signs are drawn from a cultural code (even if the linking together of the elements of the sign appear to be analogical). 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.

  1. We identified four connotative signs in the Panzani advertisement. We can identify others, such as the net bag, which can signify the miraculous draught of fishes, plenty, etc. (p. 46). The image (in its connotation) is thus constituted by an architecture of signs drawn from a viable depth of lexicons; each lexicon is coded as if the psyche itself were articulated like a language (p. 47). The further one "descends" into the psychic depths of an individual, the more rarefied, the more classifiable the signs become. (What could be more systematic than the readings of Rorschach tests?)
  2. The language of the image is not merely the totality of utterances emitted, but is also the totality of utterances received.
  3. Another difficulty in analyzing connotation: no particular language corresponds to the particularity of its signifieds, i.e., Italianicity, still life, and so on. The metalanguage which has to take charge of them at the moment of analysis is not specialized (pp. 47-48).
  4. To the general ideology correspond signifiers of connotation which are specified according to the chosen substance. These signifiers will be called connotators and the set of connotators a rhetoric, rhetoric thus appearing as the signifying aspect of ideology (p. 49). Rhetorics invariably vary with their substance (here articulated sound, there image, gesture, etc.), but not necessarily by their form.
  5. Thus, the rhetoric of the image (the classification of its connotators) is specific to the extent that it is subject to the physical constraints of vision, but to the extent that the "figures" are never more than formal relations of elements. Note: the tomato signifies Italianicity by metonymy. A series of scenes in another advertisement, i.e., coffee in beans, coffee in powder, and coffee sipped in a cup, releases a logical relationship in the way asyndeton does. The important thing simply is not to inventorize the connotators but to understood that in the total image they constitute discontinuous or scattered traits (p. 50).

    The denoted message in the Panzani advertisement: the Mediterranean vegetables, the color, the composition, the very profusion, rise up as so many scattered blocks, at once isolated and mounted in a general scene which has its own space, its own meaning. They are "set" in a syntagm which is not theirs and which is that of the denotation (p. 51).

    It is precisely the syntagm of the denoted message which naturalizes the system of the connoted message. Again: Connotation (only a system) can only be defined in paradigmatic terms: iconic denotation is only syntagmatic. The discontinuous connotators are connected, actualized, spoken through the syntagm of the denotation.

  6. In the total system of the image, the structural functions are polarized: on the one hand, we have a sort of paradigmatic condensation at the level of the connotations (of the symbols); these are strong signs; on the other, we have a syntagmatic flow at the level of the denotation. Syntagm is very close to speech: it is the iconic "discourse" which naturalizes its symbols. The world of total meaning is torn internally (structurally) between the system as culture and the system as nature.

    Barthes, R. 1964. "The Structuralist Activity." From Essais Critiques, trans. R. Howard. In Partisan Review 34 (Winter):82-88.

    ---. 1967. Writing Degree Zero, trans. A. Lavers and C. Smith. 1953; rptd. New York: Hill and Wang.

    ---. 1967. Mytholgies, trans. A. Lavers. 1957; rptd. London: Hill and Wang.

    ---. 1967. Elements of Semiology, trans. A. Lavers and C. Smith. 1964; rptd. New York: Hill and Wang.

    ---. 1974. S/Z, trans. R. Howard. 1970; rptd. Oxford: Blackwell.

    ---. 1975. The Pleasure of the Text, trans. R. Howard. 1973; rptd. New York: Hill and Wang.

    ---. 1977. Roland Barthes on Roland Barthes, trans. R. Howard. 1975; rptd. New York: Hill and Wang.

    ---. 1977. "The Rhetoric of the Image." In his book Image-Music-Text, trans. S. Heath. 1964; rpt. London: Wm. Collins Sons and Co., pp. 32-51.

    ---. 1981. Camera Lucinda, trans. R. Howard. 1980; rptd. New York: Hill and Wang.

    ---. 1983. The Fashion System, trans. M. Ward and R. Howard. 1967; rptd. New York: Hill and Wang.

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