Project 4-4: Gendering the Gaze

Read the chapter by Laura Mulvey called Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema on pps 381 – 389 of the course reader making notes.

Notes on the Gaze

Sturken and Cartwright (2009) define the in relation to visual arts as:

“the relationship of looking in which the subject is caught up in the dynamics of desire through trajectories of looking and being looked at among other people.” (Sturken and Cartwright, 2009: 442)

The gaze can be both motivated by the subjects desire for control over the object it sees, and the object can likewise capture and hold the look.

Pooke and Newall (2008) assert that in the field of art, gaze refers to the viewers engagement with the art object and is frequently suggestive of a power dynamic between the object and the spectator. The term Gaze is used prominently in film and gender studies.

Modern origins of the gaze are based on psychoanalytic theory and relates to visual and sexual attentions and the implications of gendered human perception that these contain. Gazing is considered central to sexual attraction and has both a positive and negative identification, for example, narcissistic (loving/productive) and nihilistic (hating/destructive.)  (Harris, 2006)

D’Alleva (2012) states:

“Looking is powerful. To look is to assert power, to control, to challenge authority.” (D’Alleva, 2012: 104)

A distinction is made between Gaze and gaze (lower case g): Gaze – the process of looking which constitutes a network of relationships, gaze – a specific instance of looking. Freud saw desire as crucial to the process of looking. Lacan saw the Gaze as one of the main manifestations of the four fundamental concepts of psychoanalysis: the unconscious, repetition, transference and drive. For Lacan, the Gaze gives structure and stability to our fantasies of Self and Other. Looking at art is not a neutral process but one where the viewer is a desiring subject open to the captivation asserted by the work being viewed. The function of art is to trap the Gaze because the viewer is (falsely) put in the position of the eye.

Film theorists of the 1970s (such as Laura Mulvey and Christian Metz) used the theories of Freud and Lacan to posit that in cinema the Gaze of the spectator on the image was implicitly male and objectified women on screen. Lacan’s analysis of the Gaze (for example, the mirror-phase) form an important part of feminist discussions of how women are constructed as the object of a ‘male gaze’ in film and visual arts with a particular feminist interest being the relations between looking, imagery and power in society.

Notes on ‘Visual pleasure and narrative cinema’ by Laura Mulvey

In ‘Visual pleasure and narrative cinema’, Laura Mulvey drew on psychoanalytic theories of Freud and Lacan to challenge patriarchal models of viewing. Hollywood cinema of the 1930s-50s was used to illustrate how pleasure in looking is split between the active/male protagonist/hero who possesses the Gaze and moves the action forward, and, the passive/female who is the object of the desire and the object of the Gaze.

Arguing that Hollywood cinema is geared toward male viewing pleasure, and related directly to the construction of the male psyche. This both reinforced patriarchal society and Mulvey used the psychoanalytical paradigms of scopophillia, voyeurism and narcissism:

Scopophillia – the pleasure in looking and being looked at (exhibitionism.) Pleasure in using another person as an object of sexual stimulation through sight. Active scopophillia implies a separation of erotic identity of the subject from the object on the screen. Is a function of sexual instincts.

Voyeurism – the pleasure taken in looking while not being seen to be looking. This carries negative connotations of a powerful, even sadistic, position within the Gaze.

Narcissism – identification with the image seen – linked to construction of the ego. Demands identification of the ego with the object in screen through the spectators fascination and recognition of his like. Is a function of the ego libido.

Mulvey linked pleasure gained from the male gaze in three ways:

  1. Woman’s objectification in the gaze of the male characters and audience stimulates the pleasures of erotic fantasy.
  2. Identification with the male protagonist by male viewers links to the development of the ego – identified by Lacan as the mirror-phase: the stage which creates misrecognition in the child’s mind between the actual self and how he sees himself – the ego ideal.
  3. The male viewer, through the sadistic power of the male protagonist, is able to subdue the threat symbolised by the female’s lack of a penis – symbolic of castration. To avoid this anxiety the female figure is turned into a fetish/fetish object.

Each of these strategies places the female in a position in which she has no control or agency: women are there to be looked at and the watching men project their fantasies onto the females portrayed on screen. The on screen male is a man of action and command which mirrors the underlying assumptions of a phallocentric and patriarchal society. Patriarchal culture positions woman as image and man as bearer of the image.

Mulvey argued that the reason Hollywood cinema followed these conventions of gender roles (women as visual fetishes; spoken for, bearers of meaning, and, men as vigorous agents; speakers, makers of meaning) is because this is hard wired into the social psyche and thus unavoidable. When woman is referred to as the bearer of meaning this is a reference to the way a woman’s body is organised by Lacan’s concept of the signifier of difference – that is the penis she does not have marked by castration and the threat that she is. Her body, which is complete with beauty but damaged by phallic absence, is the fetish that makes the site of the lack – the difference that forms the possibility of meaning and on which language is built.

A common criticism of Mulvey’s paper is that the Gaze she discusses is strictly male (also white and heterosexual) and this view does more to fix identity than free it. However, this misses the point that the essay is a polemic in which the male Gaze is a strategic necessity in order for Mulvey to make the case that although Hollywood narrative cinema appeared to be innocent entertainment it is really an instrument of patriarchal ideology. Despite what they term the “intellectual problems” of some aspects of Mulvey’s work, Lapsley and Westlake (2006) believe that her theories made a difference beyond academia as she rendered visible what had been invisible: the violence within representation and the reproduction of patriarchy within mainstream cinema. She revealed and confronted the self interested and misogynist nature of representations of women by white, middle class heterosexual males and contributed to the transformation of gender based relations of domination.

Watch ‘Vertigo’ and make notes on how it stands up to Mulvey’s analysis.


Scottie, The main protagonist of Vertigo is obsessed: he falls in love with a woman who apparently dies and seeing another woman who resembles her cannot help himself but remake the second in the image of the first – with eventual tragic results. (Hitchcock, in typically sardonic fashion, described the film as a twist on the Hollywood staple ‘boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy meets girl again, boy loses girl again’ Sammader, 2012) Under scrutiny it is a preposterous story and a commercial flop on release, now however it is regarded as a classic, possibly Hitchcock’s best film and was voted greatest film ever made by the BFI in 2012. Whether intentional or not Scottie’s moulding of Judy into the vision of Madeline has parallels with Hitchcock’s sadistic treatment of actors and his own obsession with a certain type of leading lady, a fetishised cool blonde. It could also be read as an analogy of the Hollywood star system in which the stars (especially the women) are no more than property to the studios.

Themes of the film include desire and artificiality, subjectivity, female objectification and the male Gaze. Hitchcock was influenced by Freud and surrealism and draws on Freud’s theories of scopophillia. Stylistically the film is almost entirely shot from Scottie’s perspective with the audience becoming complicit in his voyeurism. Dreamy tracking shots are used in the sequences where he follows both Madeline and Judy, the camera moves with Scottie and reflect his snatched glimpses, wonderment and desire. The pastel colours of the films design give a overemphasised artificiality which add to the dreamlike quality. Occasionally our gaze is returned by Novak as Madeline/Judy – at these points we feel her accusing our voyeurism. Reflecting on Vertigo’s narrative, the entire film seems completely implausible, particularly why Madeline/Judy would allow herself to be first manipulated into Elster’s murderous scheme and then allow Scottie to change her appearance. The only logical explanation is that, as Mulvey argues, woman is presented as image and man as bearer of the look. This emphasises the inherent sexual imbalance in which the (active) determining male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure (passive) which is styled accordingly.

Mulvey has the following to say about Vertigo: the look is central to the plot – oscillating between voyeurism and fetishist fascination. This is typical of Hitchcock with the male hero (James Stewart/Scottie) seeing exactly what the audience sees, his role being to portray the contradictions and tensions experienced by the spectator. The subjective camera of Vertigo predominates with the narrative being almost entirely based around what Scottie sees or fails to see – his erotic obsession and subsequent despair is shown entirely from his point of view. Scottie’s voyeurism is as blatant as is his sadistic side – he follows, watches and falls in love with a perfect image of female beauty and mystery. In the second half of the film his obsessive involvement with image is demonstrated as he tries to reconstruct Judy as Madeline and force her to conform to every detail of his fetish: “Her exhibitionism, her masochism make her an ideal counterpart to Scottie’s active, sadistic voyeurism.” (Jones, 2010: 64) His erotic interest can only be sustained with her playing and replaying her part, through repetition he breaks her down and exposes her guilt – his curiosity wins through and she is punished.

“In Vertigo, erotic involvement with the look boomerangs: the spectator’s own fascination is revealed as illicit voyeurism as the narrative content enacts the processes and pleasures that he himself is exercising and enjoying.” (ibid)

While Scottie is caught within the symbolic order with all of the attributes of the patriarchal super ego, the spectator is lulled into false security and exposed as complicit, caught in the moral ambiguity of looking: “Vertigo focuses on the implications of the active/looking, passive/looked at split in terms of sexual difference and the power of the male symbolic encapsulated in the hero.”

How does the portrayal of some contemporary black music in video match up to Mulvey’s insights?

Snoop Dogg feat Pharrell Drop It Like It’s Hot HD

Contemporary black music – particularly rap music – has a reputation for being a macho domain where image is paramount and for treating women as little more the objects. I do not profess to be an expert on this style of music and spent sometime looking through various music videos on YouTube before coming across this video: ‘Drop it like it’s hot’ by Snoop Dogg feat. Pharrell from 2009. Snoop Dogg is an artist who has been around for years and fulfils many of the stereotypes of what makes a rapper – glamourous surroundings, expensive consumer goods and a sexualised view of women. The women in this video are literally featured to be no more the glamourous window dressing, fawning and fussing over the stars in the video Snoop Dogg and Pharrell. They are shown dancing with the two male musicians, twerking next to a Rolls Royce, stripping, pouring drinks for Snoop Dogg and dancing together in a scene that could represent a club setting. They represent a juvenile wish fulfilment and are entirely there for the scopophillic pleasure of the (supposed) male viewer. The video is so outlandish and offensive that I would be inclined to think it is a parody, however, there is no sense of irony contained in it. As a final aside – I note that most versions of this video have the lyrics edited to remove potentially offensive words. An interesting choice to keep the visual content intact while censoring the lyrics of the song which shows the perceived power of words over images.

Annotate  Manet’s  ‘Olympia’  in  terms  of  the  gaze  and  the  various  characters, within and without the image.


Manet’s ‘Olympia’ (1863) was considered scandalous and vulgar when first displayed, interestingly this has nothing to do with the model being nude but rather the unconventional subject depicted and her seemingly oppositional returned gaze. Rather than depicting an idealised subject based on history or myth as was the convention of nineteenth century painting, the model is a prostitute, and, most significantly, rather than complying with codes of humility and compliance her returned gaze is ambiguous and unsettling. Manet based the composition of the painting on Titian’s Venus of Urbino (1538) and comparing the two paintings emphasise the differences and why ‘Olympia’ caused such controversy. Firstly the subject matter – Titian is depicting Venus, an ideal representation of the female form and sexuality while Manet has painted a courtesan, someone not normally presented in paintings. We can deduce ‘Olympia’ is a prostitute as this name was one often used for courtesans – the black cat shown at the bottom of the bed is a  symbol of prostitution. (As opposed to the dog shown in Titian’s painting which represents fidelity.) Both of the women in the picture are similarly undressed, reclining and holding one hand over their waist. Titian’s Venus is coy with her head cocked to one side. She has a look that could appear to be adoration or love, there is no sexual connotation to her pose and although she appears relaxed in her nakedness, the hand she holds over her genital area is appears to rest naturally rather than being held for any reasons of modesty. In ‘Olympia’ the model’s hand seems to be placed deliberately, again modesty is not the motivation here rather she is demonstrating control over her body. The position suggests that while her nakedness can be looked at for free, anything further will require payment.

The most striking aspect of Manet’s painting, as previously mentioned, is the way the model in ‘Olympia’ returns our gaze. Unlike Titian’s model her head is held high and points directly out of the painting – there can be no doubt that the subject of her gaze is the viewer. This is further emphasised by the way the black servant in the painting is ignored despite appearing to bring a gift of flowers – her stare seems to challenge the viewer. Given the typical audience at the time would have been white, middle/upper class, western male this surely would have made them feel uncomfortable when confronted by the reality of a depiction of a ‘type’ they would not have been used to seeing represented in panting. The viewer is forced to confront their scopophillia along with the attendant feelings of shame that are linked to this.


Buchanan, I (2010) Oxford Dictionary of Critical Theory. New York: Oxford University Press inc.

Cousins, M. (2011) The story of film. London: Pavilion Books

D’Alleva, A (2012) Methods and Theories of Art History (2nd Ed.) London: Laurence King Publishing

Foster, H. et al. (2012) Art since 1900: Modernism * Antimodernism * Postmodernism. (2nd ed.) London: Thames & Hudson.

Harris, J. (2006) Art History: The Key Concepts. New York: Taylor & Francis

Howells, R. Negreiros, J. (2011) Visual Culture 2nd Ed Cambridge: Polity Press

Lapsley, R. and Westlake, M. (2006) Film theory: An introduction. (2nd ed.) Manchester: Palgrave.

Macey, D. (2000) The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory London: Penguin books

Mulvey, L (1975) Visual pleasure and narrative cinema

pps. 381-390 Evans, J. and Hall, S. (eds.) (1999) Visual Culture: The Reader. London: Sage

pps. 58-65  Jones, A. (ed) (2010) The Feminism and Visual Culture Reader (2nd edition). London: Routledge

Pooke, G. and Newall, D. (2008) The Basics: Art History. Oxford: Routledge.

Samadder, R. (2012) ‘My favourite Hitchcock: Vertigo’ The Guardian, 10th August 2012. Available At: [Accessed 10th October 2016]

Sturken, M. and Cartwright, L. (2009) Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Vertigo (1958) Alfred Hitchcock. Dir. USA: Paramount Pictures

Williams, L. (ed.). (1994) Viewing positions: Ways of seeing film. London: Continuum International Publishing Group

Project 4-3: Looking, Observation or Surveillance?

Read chapter 5 of the course reader, Panopticism by Michel Foucault on pps. 61 – 71 and make notes.

Notes on the Panopticon/panopticism:

The Panopticon was conceived by English philosopher and social reformer Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) as a model of prison architecture enabling, what he thought was, a therapeutic form of total surveillance. The design of the Panopticon was based around a concentric building comprising of rings of cells at the centre of which stands a guard tower. This system enabled guards to view prisoners without being seen themselves which causes the inmates to modify their behaviour – what Bentham described as gaining power of “mind over mind.” (Sturken and Cartwright, 2009: 107) The success of the Panopticon design is that a guard does not have to be present – what matters is the idea of being viewed at all times which becomes fixed in the mind of each prisoner – and this is what keeps them under control in a regime of silent discipline. Bentham saw the chief virtue of the Panopticon as being the reduction of the need for violent forms of coercion – the lack of privacy would have a remedial effect on the prisoners, forcing them to internalise socially approved standards of behaviour and rehabilitate themselves for re-entry into society.

In ‘Discipline and Punish: the birth of the prison’ (1975), Michel Foucault explored the idea of the Panopticon which he believed represented an emblematic of shift not only the treatment of prisoners but in organizational rationality of society as a whole. He saw the Panoptic model as being transferrable, and indeed present, in not only prisons but hospitals, educational establishments and the workplace. Foucault was interested in the psychological nature of the Panopticon, the relentless ‘inspecting gaze’ – a feature he viewed as both fascinating and disturbing. Unlike dungeons, which remove prisoners from sight and give them some protection from scrutiny, the prisoners of the Panopticon imagine themselves being constantly watched – and it is this that keeps them in line. They internalise the figure of the imagined observer and modify their behaviour as subjects under surveillance even when no one is watching. Foucault suggested that in modern society we behave as if we are under a scrutinizing, panoptic gaze: we internalise the rules and norms of society as we imagine ourselves to be constantly under a watchful eye that expects us to behave in this way.

Howells and Negreiros (2011: 108-9) compare the Panopticon to CCTV – similarly these cameras do not need to be turned on to exercise a disciplinary function because we self censor and self regulate so effectively. They assert that the relationship between image and power which is enacted through the internalising of the inspecting gaze is a phenomenon associated with the emergence of modernity. The previous relationship could be designated ‘spectacular’, that is, overt displays of power made visible to ordinary people. For example, heavily ritualised power structures such as monarchy, totalitarian regimes and religion – all of which function as a warning against subversion of the status quo. Although the function of power is less overt due to the prevalence of surveillance, it is no less ideologically determinant. Sturken and Cartwright (2009: 108-110) agree that camera surveillance is a form of intrusion that we have come to accept: the physical form of the inspecting gaze that we imagine. Photographic images form part of what Foucault termed the docile bodies of the modern state: citizens who participate in the ideologies of the society through a desire to conform. Homogenous media and advertising images that promote the ‘perfect look’ are manifestations of this.

Notes on ‘Panopticism’ by Michel Foucault in Evans and Hall (1999) pps. 61-71.

The extract begins with a description of the measures taken when the plague appeared in a town in the 17thC: a system of surveillance based on permanent registration – the plague is met by order – it’s function to prevent disease being transmitted by the mixing together of bodies. The evil of prohibition is outweighed by the danger of increased fear and death.

The leper gave rise to rituals of exclusion and the plague to disciplinary projects. The plague stricken town is the utopia of the perfectly governed city and ideal exercise of disciplinary power: traversed with hierarchy, surveillance, observation and writing.

In the 19thC the projects of exclusion and discipline begin to come together in the form of the psychiatric system, the penitentiary, the reformatory, the approved school and the hospital.

Description of Bentham’s Panopticon: at it’s periphery an annular building, at the centre a tower pierced with wide windows that open into the inner side of the ring. The peripheric building is divided into cells, each of which extend the whole width of the building. Each has two windows – one inside corresponding with the windows of the tower, the other, outside allowing light to cross from one end of the cell to the other. A supervisor is placed in the central tower. Each cell has place for a madman, patient, condemned man, worker or schoolboy. The principles of the dungeon, to enclose, deprive of light, are reversed with only enclosure being preserved.

“Full lighting and the eye of the supervisor capture better than darkness, which ultimately protected. Visibility is a trap.”

The negative effect of the “compact swarming masses” found in places of confinement as depicted by Goya are also avoided.

The lack of contact between confined individuals who are constantly seen by the supervisor, prevents disruption as invisibility is a guarantee of order. The crowd/collective effort is abolished and replaced by a collection of separated individualities. From the guardians point of view it is replaced by a multiplicity that can be numbered and supervised. From the inmates point of view a separated and observed solitude:

“Hence the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that ensures the automatic functioning of power.”

The surveillance is permanent in its effects even if it is discontinuous in its action: the inmates are caught in a power situation of which they are the bearers themselves. Bentham laid down the principle that “power should be visible and unverifiable.” In the peripheric ring of the Panopticon, “one is totally seen without ever seeing.” In the central tower “one sees everything without ever being seen.”

Any random individual can exercise power by being the observer in the tower – even the director’s servants. It does not matter what motivates the observer, in fact, the more anonymous and temporary the greater the risk of the prisoner being surprised and anxiously aware of being observed.

No restraints are required: “he who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power.”

The Panopticon makes it possible to observe inmates and draw comparison and differences: it can be used as a laboratory to carry out experiments. For example – to correct individuals, monitor the effect of medicines, monitor the effectiveness of varying punishments, teach different techniques to workers, bring up children under different systems of thought.

“The Panopticon is a privileged place for experiments on men, and for analysing with complete certainty the transformations that may be obtained from them.”

The Panopticon is a generalised model of functioning and way of defining power relations in the everyday life of men as opposed to “ruined prisons littered with the mechanisms of torture.” In each application it is the perfect exercise of power: it can reduce the number who exercise it, while increasing the number of those on whom it is exercised.

Many  video  artists  today  use  themselves  as  their  subject  (e.g.  Lindsay  Seers). Think about this in relation to panopticism.

Lindsay Seers presents a curated version of her life as her artwork using aspects of her biography (which may or may not be true) as her inspiration. Some of her works are presented as identifiable artworks while other aspects are less easy to define and categorise presented in the documentary mode or as interviews with her mother and psychologists which could either back her biography or be part of a fabrication. For example, Seers’ says that she was mute and had an eidetic (photographic) memory until the age of 8. This disappeared and she uttered her first words when she recognised her reflection in the mirror for the first time, however, the experience had such an effect as to drive her to ‘become’ a camera in an attempt to recapture the immediacy of experience she felt during these early years. Her early works involve turning herself into a ‘human camera’ – by putting photographic paper in her mouth and using the opening and shutting of her jaw as the camera shutter to make exposures. This results in images framed by her teeth, stained with saliva and tinged with the blood from her cheeks.

Seers’ work is an example of what Mike Brennan terms ‘neo-narration’: the practice of artists using a variety of narrative devices to produce art. The narrative that Lindsay Seers presents could be read as an extended performance piece,  it is impossible to tell which (if any) of the aspects of her personal biography that she presents as both the subject matter and inspiration is real. This is almost a curation of her life – as viewers we are left with the choice of taking everything presented as the truth, in which case Seers is being almost confessional in what she is showing us, or, questioning how much truth there is in what we see. Either way, the effect is to distance us from the reality or at least puts Seers in control of her own narrative. The total scrutiny someone in the public eye is put under could be likened to the inmates experience in the Panopticon – Seers both takes control and subverts this by putting herself in our apparent full gaze. In a way the wish of many people to curate their lives through social media and present a particular image of themselves could be seen as a less sophisticated example of Seers work – this sort of presentation only shows a particular side of ourselves that we want to project to the world at large.

Find  six  images  in  any  medium:  two  that  are  the  result  of  looking,  two  of observing and two of surveillance and explain your choices.

Before attempting this part of the project I felt it important to consider and define looking, observation and surveillance. For each of the headings I have chosen photography as examples because of the way a photograph gives the illusion that it is a representation of the real world.


Looking is the most seemingly benign of the three ways off seeing we are asked to consider – we look all of the time, it is a normal and natural part of our day to day lives, it is one of our key senses that allow us to negotiate the world around us. Except, we do not look in a neutral way – our mind is constantly making judgements about what we see. Our understanding of ourselves is fundamentally based upon the looking at the world around us, we also gain awareness about ourselves by recognising (or even disregarding) visual clues of others who are looking at us. The act of looking can have a sinister edge – when does looking stop and voyeurism begin?


Judith Joy Ross: Untitled, 1988 (from the series Easton Portraits)

This portrait appears at first benign but on closer inspection presents a problematic view of adolescence and emerging sexuality. Three girls wearing swimsuits stand together for what appears to be holiday snapshot. The closer we look however, the more we can read from the image and the more ambiguous it becomes. The first two girls appear to be twins, although there are subtle differences in body shape which could potentially suggest they are sisters rather than twins. They stand conventionally looking straight toward the camera, and therefore the viewer of the photograph, their smiles are not exactly forced but have the appearance of not being natural – we can imagine them being asked to ‘say cheese’ by the photographer, their hands are crossed at their waist, hands tightly held together suggesting a subconscious lack of confidence in their body image or a need to cover their modesty as much as possible. Another girl stands next to the twins – she appears to be a similar age and does not share the family resemblance of the other two girls. Her pose is quite different from the sisters – she appears relaxed with arms by her side, hips slightly tilted in a way that could be read as provocative. Her smile is natural and she has an air of assured confidence. Unlike the other two girls she is looking to the side rather than straight at the camera. This leads us to consider who she is looking at and question why she has chosen not to perform for the camera, who is it that she is the recipient of her gaze and why does she choose not to look at us? Behind the three girls a male figure, out of focus, shirt off, can just be made out in the background. He is posed in such a way that it is obvious he is viewing the girls. To be looking at them in such a way from behind, so they are unaware of him, appears potentially disturbing – we wonder about his motives. This also has the effect of provoking discomfort in the viewer: are we any better than this man – looking on young girls uninvited and unwanted way? If this is a family snapshot what right do we have to be studying the picture? What right do we have to be making such judgements about the young girls in the picture and what does that say about us?


Garry Winogrand: New York, 1969


Street photography, a genre that Garry Winogrand is perhaps the most famous exponent, relies on catching fleeting, often candid, moments. In this picture, taken at a tilted angle that only adds a sense of immediate spontaneity, you feel the protagonists putting the photographer (and the viewer) under scrutiny. A young couple kiss in a doorway at the side of the frame, the man has his back to the camera and does not witness the picture being taken. The girl however sees exactly what is happening, her eyes open and pointed directly toward the camera lens. Another girl stands in the centre of the frame also looking straight toward us. Her expression is challenging, and yet we are left to wonder about the relationship between her and the kissing couple. Is she a friend playing gooseberry to the courting of her more attractive companion? Is she simply a passer by? The suggestion is that it is okay for her to be witnessing the passionate scene but not the photographer, and maybe she is right – her gaze is certainly so powerful that most people would not have dared to press the shutter. Winogrand however is unafraid and seems to recognise the power that this double returned gaze creates in the viewer.


Observation has connotations of objectivity and looking with purpose, of gaining empirical knowledge. For example, a physician would be said to observe their patients in order to arrive understand their symptoms and arrive at a diagnosis or cure. It suggests a planned activity with a tangible outcome.


Martin Parr: Pisa, Italy (from the series Small World 1987-1994)

Martin Parr has made his photographic career through observing. His images often show the world in a different light – not necessarily in a quirky way but more accurately he demonstrates a view of the world that is not usually presented. His Small World series from which this image is taken explores themes of global tourism, particularly our need to document our travels photographically. This image shows tourists in Pisa in front of the famous leaning tower recreating the same pose of seemingly holding the tower up. Of course, this optical illusion is only visible from the angle of their particular photographer. Parr shows the wide view of a number of tourists recreating the same pose which wittily and directly shows the absurdity of the situation combined with the need for the majority of visitors to do the same thing – as if some sort of ritual.


George Georgiou: Last Stop

For his photographic series Last Stop, George Georgiou wanted to explore the diversity and vibrancy of London. To do this he chose to take pictures from the seat of a bus as it travelled around. His viewpoint therefore was always confined to both the route of the bus and what was in front of him at any given time. All street photography relies heavily on chance, and clearly Georgiou always had the choice of when to press the shutter and which direction to point his camera, however, the constraints of the project make this for me an exercise in observation. In this image multiple readings could be taken from the people in the scene varying from the dramatic beginnings of an argument or disagreement to simply a conversation between friends. The three people in the centre of the image could be friends enjoying an afternoon drink – the man standing could be a waiter explaining what the establishment has to offer. Or this could be someone who has seen the couple in the bar and has come in to confront them about something. The hand on the man’s head could either be the most comfortable way for him to sit or an involuntary reaction to what he is being told. The woman in the background could be with the man standing and arriving either to back him up or try to pull him away or she could simply be an unrelated customer. The waiter in the foreground could be reacting to what is being said behind him or simply in the process of turning to face the other way.

The fact that because of reflections and the behaviour of the light in the picture it is obvious we are looking through glass adds another dimension to the image for me and is what makes it observation. This has connotations of animals a the zoo, we are observing the people in this image as they behave in a completely natural way unaware of being watched which would have caused alterations in behaviour as we have seen in the previous images above.


In some ways surveillance is the simplest of the three terms to define as it refers to attentive observation to gather information. This can either be overt, like CCTV cameras that behave in a similar way to the Panopticon by making us seen without us having the ability to see who is watching us. And covert, for example undercover surveillance – images taken without our knowledge or consent. Often surveillance is an instrument of power used to assert control.


Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin: Yekaterina Samutsevich of Pussy Riot, 2013 (from the series Spirit is a Bone)


It seems that we have somehow come to accept being under constant surveillance by CCTV cameras as the norm. Indeed, many now welcome the feeling of safety that these imply. With their ‘Spirit is a Bone’ project, Broomberg and Chanarin explore one of the ways surveillance may evolve. They experiment with a Russian made face recognition system that scans individuals faces as they move through public spaces using multiple cameras from multiple angles – a 3D model of an individuals face is produced that can be stored for reference and potentially used in a similar way to finger prints in the future.

The image here, which has an eerie, death mask type quality, is of a member of the band Pussy Riot who have been vocally critical of the current Russian political system and President Putin. The power here is not in the image itself which is unspectacular, but the possibilities of what the technology could mean. The applications in an oppressive regime like that in Russia (and of course the memory of the way photographs were used and altered during the Soviet era also resonate) is truly frightening. Perhaps the application in the so-called ‘free world’ is just as terrifying, perhaps more so, as the sort of surveillance here relies on complicity rather than repression.


Merry Alpern: Dirty Windows #23

Merry Alpern’s series ‘Dirty Windows’ are voyeuristic images taken from her friends loft apartment of a gentlemen’s club on the other side of the airshaft between the buildings. Alpern would wait with her camera and tripod for any activity to present itself at the two visible windows 15 feet and one flight down from her friends flat. Sights recorded range from people going to the toilet to drug taking and sex. Alpern describes herself as an anthropologist fascinated by the different ways the same activity played out (for example, how each man after urinating shakes his penis a little differently, but none seem to wash their hands. Angier, 2006:61)

The images, as can be seen in the picture here, in this series have an overt voyeurism – like a Peeping Tom except the photographer is female. Does that make the images any less lascivious I wonder? Stylistically the grainy, high contrast shots give a raw look that is in keeping with the seedy nature of the subject matter and puts the viewer in to the mind space of the voyeur. I wonder if Alpern would have been so compelled to make these images if the view was less sensational, and if so would they have gained any recognition or notice?


I have found this project to be fascinating, particular the final question of what constitutes looking, observation and surveillance. Even looking back at the images I have chosen now I can see a great deal of crossover between the headings and I am not sure whether I have encapsulated fully this question – or indeed whether this is even possible.

The power of images is the major theme of UVC and indeed visual culture as a subject in itself. The more I think about it the more nuanced and far reaching this subject is however, the power of images is not simply abut top down systems of control but also about a complex series of interlocking and overlapping themes and concerns. Power is both present within a societies dominant ideology and also with citizens. Control is not about oppression in late capitalist societies but about making us all complicit in the overarching systems. If we take Foucault’s notion of panopticism and apply it as a metaphor for conformity to social norms, we realise how we co-opt ourselves into a world where surveillance is the norm and willingly give away our freedoms and rights – after all, the only people who have anything to worry are those who have something to hide.


Andreasson, K. (2014) Broomberg and Chanarin’s best photograph: Pussy riot in 3D. The Guardian, 6th February 2014. Available at: [Accessed on 19 September 2016]

Angier, R. (2006) Train your gaze: (a practical and theoretical introduction to portrait photography). Lausanne: AVA Academia

Borromeo, L. (2010) Tate makes surveillance an art form. The Guardian, 28th May 2010, Available at: [Accessed on 14 September 2016]

Brown, M. (2010) Tate modern in display of voyeurism for photography curator’s debut. The Guardian, 26th May 2010 Available at: [Accessed on 14 September 2016]

Buchanan, I (2010) Oxford Dictionary of Critical Theory. New York: Oxford University Press inc.

Clarke, G. (1997) The photograph: A visual and cultural history. New York: Oxford University Press.

Evans, J. and Hall, S. (eds.) (1999) Visual Culture: The Reader. London: Sage

Howells, R. Negreiros, J. (2011) Visual Culture 2nd Ed, Cambridge: Polity Press

Jasbar, A. and Augschöll, D. (N.D.) Interview with Judith Joy Ross. Available at: [Accessed on 19 September 2016]

Macey, D. (2000) The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory London: Penguin books

Morrison, B. (2010) Exposed: Voyeurism, surveillance and the camera. The Guardian, 22nd May 2010. Available at:  [Accessed on 14 September 2016]

Pooke, G. and Newall, D. (2008) The Basics: Art History. Oxford: Routledge.

Sturken, M. and Cartwright, L. (2009) Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press (2016) Exposed: Voyeurism, surveillance and the camera  Available at: [Accessed on 20 September 2016]

Wombell, P. (2015) Data Iconoclast in British Journal of Photography, December 2015. London: Aptitude media


Project 4-2: The Mirror Phase

Read the article by Jacques Lacan entitled The Mirror-Phase as Formative of the Function of the I on pps 620 – 624 of Art in Theory 1900 – 2000 making notes.

Notes on the Mirror-Phase

Lacan’s notion of the Mirror-Phase (or stage) is derived from Freud’s theories of narcissism and studies of child psychology and development. It refers to the period in which the ego is formed in childhood.

Lacan reworked Freud’s developmental model the basis for this being their agreement that infants have no sense of self or identity between themselves and their mother – that is, between Self and Other. Like Freud, he proposed three stages of development from child to adult:

Freud – oral, anal, phallic.

Lacan – Real, Imaginary, Symbolic.

During the Real stage all of the babies needs are satisfied, there is no absence, loss or lack. Between 6-18 months the baby begins to distinguish between the body and everything else in the world. The idea of the ‘Other’ results from the realisation that it is separate from the mother. This creates anxiety and loss – the baby shifts from having needs to having demands which cannot be satisfied with objects. The baby has the mistaken sense of itself as a whole person when recognising their image in a mirror. This creates the ego and sense of self – the mirror stage is also the realm of the Imaginary. Our sense of Self is built by misidentifying with the mirror image – a perfect self with no insufficiency or ego ideal. Following the mirror stage when the baby has formulated a sense of otherness, they enter the Symbolic which is the realm of culture and language. As humans become speaking subjects they designate themselves by the ‘I’ that was discovered in the Imaginary. They must obey the laws and rules of language which Lacan terms the ‘law-of-the-father.’ A notion which links to Freud’s theories of Oedipus, Electra and castration complexes. (D’Alleva, 2012: 96-7)

The mirror-phase was also based on studies carried out by Henri Wallon in the 1930s which compared the reaction of young children on seeing their reflection with that of chimpanzees. The humans were fascinated while the chimpanzees were uninterested which led Wallon to conclude that the babies had recognized the image in the mirror as their actual selves. (Buchanan, 2010: 322)

Lacan proposed that between the ages of 6-18 months, by looking at their own mirror image, babies began to build their ego and become self aware. However, the infant mistakenly sees itself as independent and apart from others in the world despite lacking motor coordination and skills: they see both the ideal ‘I’ and ideal ego, they recognise their image as both ‘me’ and not ‘me’, both themselves and different – a split in recognition that forms both the basis of alienation and at the same time pushes them to grow. The mirror-phase offers both self-recognition coupled with misrecognition and self fragmentation – it is not about the mirror as a reflection of the self but about the mirror as the constitutional element in the construction of the self. (Sturken and Cartwright (2009: 101, 212, 449)

For Chandler the mirror-phase is the defining moment of the Imaginary – the private, psychic realm where the construction of the self is initiated by visual images reflected back by an other with whom we identify. We see our mirror image and this induces a strong, defined illusion of a coherent and self governing personal identity. This also marks the child’s emergence from a matriarchal state of nature to a patriarchal order of culture. (Chandler, 2008: 93)

Eagleton states that we both recognise and identify with our mirror reflection (it is part of ourselves) and also find it alien (not ourselves.) Therefore, the image the child sees in the mirror is an alienated one – a misrecognition that is a pleasing unity not experienced in their own body. Lacan sees the Imaginary as a realm of images where we make identifications but also misconceive and misrecognise ourselves through this very act. As a child grows they continue to make such imaginary identifications continuing to build their ego which Lacan sees as the narcissistic process whereby we bolster a fictive sense of selfhood by finding something in he world with which we can identify. (Eagleton, 1996: 142-3)

Lacan was associated with the Surrealist movement. Find two examples of Surrealist work that might have echoes of the mirror phase and annotate them to show how.

My selections here are from painters associated with surrealism who have both produced work that literally features a mirror and appear to draw inspiration from the notion of the mirror-phase.


Paul Delvaux: ‘The Mirror’ (1939)


A woman sits in a room facing a mirror, however, her apparent reflection does not represent the scene in front of the mirror – it shows a naked with an outdoor scene behind her. The woman in the foreground with her back to us seems to be of wealthy means – she is wearing an expensive looking gown, her seat is ornate and padded which echoes the ornate gilt frame of the mirror she is facing. Strangely, the wall paper in the room in which she is seated is peeling and the ceiling seems in a state of disrepair, the floor is also bare floorboards. We assume the figure in the mirror is a reflection of the seated woman because her pose is the same, however, her nakedness indicates this is an imagined view we are witnessing. A small section of the room, the bare floorboards and peeling wall paper can be seen in the mirror and behind this is an outdoor scene showing a row of trees, one tree standing alone and to the side, and buildings in the background. This again appears to be imagined because the scene covers what appears to be the back wall of the room.

One reading of this scene could be that the reflected image is the woman’s idealised or unconscious view of herself. If we do not take the poor condition of the room’s interior as literal this could represent her inner feelings towards the apparent trappings of her status in society – the dress she wears could also be a symbol of this so being naked could be either the freedom she longs for or the uninhibited way she views herself outside of the trappings of her life. Conversely, the decay of the room could represent the woman’s real life or mental state with the idealised reflection being her own incorrect perceptions. The lone tree in the background seems to be significant and could back up the notion of freedom or difference as it appears to be the same as the others in the row and yet stands apart. This could represent the woman – on the surface the same as anyone else, and yet underneath different and separate. The lack of clothing could merely be a metaphor for the masks of conformity that we use to comply with societal convention.



René Magritte: ‘Dangerous Liaisons’ (1936)

A woman is shown holding a large mirror over her torso – she appears to be naked. She is standing straight on, the mirror covers from the top of her legs to her head which is tilted down and to the side, her eyes are closed. The reflection in the mirror appears to be of the same woman because the style and colour of her hair and skin tone matches. Clearly this cannot be the case however, a fact that is driven home by the body in the reflection standing at a different angle and being a different perspective. The figure in the mirror is standing to the side with buttocks facing the viewer, one breast is visible with the arms held underneath across the chest.

One reading of this image is that the woman is using the mirror to protect her modesty, which could be backed up by the coy cocking of her head to one side. What we see in the reflection is our projection of what we imagine beneath, a fantasy extended by the more provocative posing. The closed eyes could also suggest that we are witnessing the imagined self perception of the woman represented as a dream state. This could either be a projection of her inner feelings of sensuality, an idealised image of herself,  regret at feeling repressed (backed up by covering herself with the mirror) or, her response to objectification. Potentially however, the reflection is not a manifestation of the woman holding the mirror’s subconscious at all, but, the reflected imaginings of the (male?) viewer. The reflection could be the fulfilment of the viewers wish that the woman holding the mirror would be less repressed and more sexually confident or the projection of masculine fantasies of female sexualisation – the reflection of the woman is provocative (brazenly so?) despite evidence that the woman holding the mirror (reality?) is not like this.

It is interesting that both artists here have chosen to represent female nudity in their paintings – as men do they have the right to explore notions of the female sexual subconscious? It is true that the female nude is an established artistic convention but to extend this objectification to female inner thoughts seems to be somewhat presumptuous.

Find two examples of the way the contemporary  media  make  use  of  Lacan’s ideas and show how.

Willamson (1995) makes some interesting observations about Lacan’s notion if the mirror-phase and how this relates to advertising. She states that advertisements alienate our identity in constituting us as one of the objects in an exchange that we ourselves must make, thereby appropriating form us an image which gives us back our own ‘value’. Advertisements dangle before us an image of an Other; but invite us to be the Same. This capitalizes on our regressive tendency toward the Ego-ideal.

I have chosen two advertisements which deal with body image in very different ways:


This advertisement for Protein World weight loss powder caused controversy because of its depiction of what critics saw as an unrealistic and potentially damaging projection of unrealistic body image. The advert invites the viewer to identify recognise the representation of the ideal physique, slim and toned,  as something attainable through the use of the advertised weight loss product. The further connotation is that this type of physique is the only body type that is acceptable for wearing beach wear, anything else being inferior. What we recognise is a reflection of our imperfections rather than the ideal which is represented – the aim being that we use the advertised product as a way of achieving this. Although complaints to the UK advertising watchdog deemed that the advert did not violate advertising guidelines it was met with much criticism in both the press and more directly by members of the public with billboards being vandalised on the London underground and in New York.


This still from an advert to promote awareness of eating disorders (available at: is a powerful take on how the self can be distorted in a negative way. The ad depicts a teenage girl in her underwear looking at herself in the mirror. She is of typical body shape and by no means overweight yet focusses on what she her believes to be imperfections, at one point pulling at her side which is more like skin than fat. At the end of the advert, the camera pulls back and shows a painfully thin girl from the back. We are confronted with the fact that the images we have been viewing are the girl’s perception of herself rather than reality – the final shot shown here of the thin and normal girl together powerfully demonstrates how our view of self can be perverted into a negative and destructive one rather than ideal.


I have made a conscious effort here to gain the information I need for the project rather than getting obsessed with too much detail. For example, looking at the mirror-phase could easily open up into something much broader…self, other, ego, id, superego, the gaze etc. etc. Some of this I note are topics to be studied in further exercises.

I started doing quite a bit of reading about surrealism before also stopping myself and trying the approach of looking at works and making selections based on what seemed to fit the topic of the mirror-phase. This proved more difficult than I thought as the general art history books I own did not really have what I wanted and a google image search resulted in a great deal of results – many of which where not relevant. I always look at present and past student blogs when working on a project, and on this occasion found the images I eventually chose via former UVC student Keith Greenough: I did have a number of other images that I considered including but kept coming back to these as they seemed to encapsulate what I understood by the mirror-phase. I have asked for some support from art history students via the OCA student forum with recommendations of websites and books they use for general art history research. The advise gained here will hopefully help with subsequent projects.


Buchanan, I (2010) Oxford Dictionary of Critical Theory. New York: Oxford University Press inc.

Chandler, D. (2008) The Basics: Semiotics. Oxford: Routledge.

D’Alleva, A (2012) Methods and Theories of Art History (2nd Ed.) London: Laurence King Publishing

Eagleton, T. (1996) Literary theory: An introduction. (2nd ed.) Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers

Evans, J. and Hall, S. (eds.) (1999) Visual Culture: The Reader. London: Sage

Foster, H. et al. (2012) Art since 1900: Modernism * Antimodernism * Postmodernism. (2nd ed.) London: Thames & Hudson.

Lacan, J. ‘The mirror-phase as formative of the function of the I’ pps. 620-624 Harrison, C. and Wood, P. (eds.) (2002) Art in Theory 1900–2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas. Oxford: Blackwell.

Macey, D. (2000) The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory London: Penguin books

Minsky, R. (1995) Psychoanalysis and gender: An introductory reader. New York: Taylor & Francis.

Murray, C. (ed.) (2002) Key writers on art: The twentieth century. New York: Taylor & Francis

Pooke, G. and Newall, D. (2008) The Basics: Art History. Oxford: Routledge.

De Botton, A. (2016) PSYCHOTHERAPY – Jacques Lacan.  Available at: [Accessed on 6 September 2016]

Sturken, M. and Cartwright, L. (2009) Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Sweney, M. (2016) ‘Protein world’s “beach body ready” ads do not objectify women, says watchdog’ In: The Guardian Available at: [Accessed on 10 September 2016]

Williamson, J. (1995) Decoding Advertisements: Ideology and Meaning in Advertising. London: Marion Boyars.

Zizek, S. (2006) How to Read Lacan. London: Granta.


Project 4-1: Freud, Oedipus and Castration

Read, and make notes on, the essay by Freud The Dissolution of the Oedipal Complex.

Buchanan (2010) argues that the Oedipus complex is the central organizing myth of psychoanalysis. In ‘The Interpretation of Dreams’ (1913), Freud, discussed how his clinical experience led to the conclusion that experience as a child had a major determination on the adult lives of his more neurotic patients.

Freud’s idea of the Oedipus complex originated from his self analysis of his own dreams – his jealousy of his father and affection for his mother reminded him of the Sophocles play ‘Oedipus Rex’. In the play, Oedipus, not knowing the identity of either, kills his father and marries his mother. On finding out the truth he blinds himself. Freud concluded that the themes of ‘Oedipus Rex’ continued to resonate after 2500 years because of their universality and that it also encapsulated childhood development:

“Psychoanalysis holds that all children develop a love attachment to the parent of the opposite sex, thus, the little boy loves his mother and wants to usurp his father.” (Buchanan, 2010: 351)

Macey (2000) agrees that the Oedipus complex is a cornerstone of psychoanalysis and a way of describing the child’s sexual attraction to the parent of the opposite sex and jealousy of the parent of the same sex. It assumes a primal state where only maleness exists – a girl does not have a penis due to castration, which is symbolised by the blinding of Oedipus, a girl may believe she has been castrated by a jealous mother who resents her sexual feelings toward her father. Conversely, a boy fears castration by a jealous father. For a boy, the dissolution of the Oedipus complex occurs when this truth is accepted and he begins to identify with his father. For a girl, the Oedipus complex begins to dissolve when her desire to regain the penis she has lost is replaced by the desire to have a baby.

Pooke and Newall (2008) state that a child enters the Oedipal phase at around 5/6 years old when the child’s relationship with their parents becomes the focus of their sexual development. Boys recognise their sexual anatomy matches their fathers, but their mother does not have a penis. This results in anxiety that desire for the mother will result in castration by the father as well as triggering the urge to kill the father who they now see as a rival and a threat. On noticing genital difference, girls perceive they have already been castrated which leads to the acceptance of passive sexual role.

Freud recognises that the two natures of masculine and feminine are present within each individual, proposing that everyone is inherently bisexual. Failure to fulfil the early stages of sexual development lead to the emergence of neuroses: this can be inhibited behaviour patterns or regression to an earlier stage of sexual development with aspects of sexual identity incompletely developed, for example, fetishism or narcissism.

Minsky (1995) adds that castration anxiety is compounded by parental threats to remove the penis in relation to the young child’s masturbation.

Freud defended reactions against his ideas of the Oedipus complex as being proof of their validity: he believed the myth would not provoke such outbursts if it did not reveal an inner truth. (Buchanan, 2010: 351)

Look at Edvard Munch’s Ashes (1894) and make notes as to how Freud’s ideas help you to understand this image.


Edvard Munch: Ashes (1894)

In ‘Ashes’ (1894) Munch depicts two characters in a woodland setting. An apparently male figure is shown in the bottom left, his body hunched over, hand on top of his head. He is clearly in some form of distress or perhaps regret, his clothes and hair are almost entirely black which echoes his mood. Behind him, a female figure is standing upright, both hands on her head, her expression is difficult to read but it appears to suggest some sort of drama. Her appearance is dishevelled – her red hair is wild and flowing, her dress is unbuttoned revealing a red undergarment – a flash of colour in the otherwise sombre palette of the rest of the painting.

If we read the painting on a literal level, it would seem to depict a sexual encounter between the two characters. The drama and seeming regretful melancholy of the scene would suggest this has not been a happy occurrence – the liaison may have been illicit (a reference to Oedipus?) and what we are seeing is the aftermath of regret, or, the advances of the female character have been spurned by the man. The dynamic pose of the woman and use of red to signify passion seems to contrast starkly with the repressed pose of the man.

The atmosphere of the painting suggests either heightened reality or a dream state , perhaps the male character’s inner thoughts, dreams or memories. His placement in the bottom left seems significant as it separates him from the background which would align with this view. If we assume that the picture represents the symbolic rather than literal a number of conclusions can be reached: this is the memory of an illicit liaison, regret for being unable to consummate a sexual encounter, recognition of the male characters sexual repression which could also be read as confusion over sexuality. All of these readings would fit with Freudian concepts of unresolved sexual development in childhood leading to neuroses in the adult.

Once you know about Munch’s unremittingly bleak biography it is hard to separate this from his work. Yet, the title of the painting ‘Ashes’ would suggest the subject of the painting is death. “Illness, madness and death were the dark angels who watched over my cradle and accompanied me throughout my life” he wrote. (Hudson, 2012) Both his mother and elder sister died from tuberculosis, he said the image of his father praying for days on end after the death of his mother, kneeling in anguish, left him terrified at five years old. His younger sister was diagnosed with mental illness so it could be her hysteria that is being depicted here.

Munch’s failed relationship with Tulla Larsen, a beautiful, independently wealthy but also powerful and controlling woman, could also be an influence – the male character being Munch himself and the woman Tulla. Unable to commit to Tulla (Munch believed he was unfit to father children and that solitude fuelled his art) their on-off relationship eventually came to an end when she married one of Munch’s younger colleagues. Ironically, Munch felt betrayed by this and is said to have brooded for years about it. With this knowledge ‘Ashes’ can be read as a portrait of both Munch’s regret about not being able to fulfil Tulla’s passionate needs, his own sexual repression (as opposed to Tulla’s passion) and his fear of a strong female partner.

Castration anxiety  may  help  to  explain  the  images  featuring  a  dominatrix or simply a large woman and a small man. Seaside postcards of the so-called humorous variety often feature this sort of image. Find two or three images of this or some other genre that might be explained in part at least by Freud and by annotation show how.

Richard Billingham: Ray’s a Laugh


Freud would have had a lot to say about Richard Billingham, his childhood and his family situation. He would have had even more to say about his ‘Ray’s a Laugh’ photographic series: snapshot images of his disfunctional family intended to be the basis for paintings for Billingham’s degree course. The pictures were never intended for publication but eventually became both a critical and commercial success. They show his highly unconventional home life: his father Ray, a chronic alcoholic, fuelled by the home brew a neighbour supplied, drinking then sleeping – unable to tell if it is day or night. His mother Liz: a large woman with arms covered in tattoos, obsessed with animals – her flat full of pets and assorted brightly coloured kitsch items, her own ‘psychological space’ that was ‘carnivalesque’ and decorative. (BBC)

In Billingham’s own words:

“I was living in this tower block; there was just me and him. He was an alcoholic, he would lie in the bed, drink, get to sleep, wake up, get to sleep, didn’t know if it was day or night. But it was difficult to get him to stay still for more than say 20 minutes at a time so I thought that if I could take photographs of him that would act as source material for these paintings and then I could make more detailed paintings later on. So that’s how I first started taking photographs.” (BBC)

And from the back of the book jacket of ‘Ray’s a Laugh’:

“This book is about my family. My father Raymond is a chronic alcoholic. He doesn’t like going outside and mostly drinks homebrew.

My mother Elizabeth hardly drinks but she does smoke a lot. She likes pets and things that are decorative. They married in 1970 and I was born soon after.

My younger brother Jason was taken into care when he was 11 but is now back with Ray and Liz again. Recently he became a father. Ray says Jason is unruly. Jason says Ray’s a laugh but doesn’t want to be like him.”

In the chosen picture, Liz is shown side on to the right of the frame, side on and facing Ray who is seated. Her fist is clenched and she is clearly unhappy at Ray, so much so that it appears the scene could burst into a physical attack. Stylistically, Liz is out of focus and overexposed due to the use of flash and being closer to the camera. This emphasises her angered state and the heightened nature of the scene. Ray is sitting low in the frame emphasising how small and weak he is in comparison to Liz. He is looking away apparently impassive, who knows what transgression has prompted the confrontation? Ray’s lack of response is pitiful and sums up his relationship to both Liz and life in general.

Charlotte Cotton, in her essay RAL, sees as ‘Ray’s a Laugh’ as a way Billingham has used creativity to reconcile himself with his chaotic and dysfunctional childhood. It seems to me that propositions such as this are presented by critics and commentators who cannot comprehend a family life that was merely a reality for Billingham. Despite the conflict presented in the picture here, there is also a theme of love and acceptance that runs throughout the series – my hunch is that this is how Billingham truly felt about his family.

Anders Petersen: Café Lehmitz (1967-1970)


This image by Anders Petersen is from a series of photographs of the regulars at a bar in Hamburg, Café Lehmitz, he frequented in the late 1960s. A man, shirt off and eyes closed, is held in an embrace by an older woman. His eyes are closed as his head rests on her neck, her mouth is wide open, laughing which strongly contrasts with his seeming serenity. We know nothing of the relationship between these two, although the woman appears older than the man. The pose suggests a mother/son rather than sexual relationship – it is possible that the woman is comforting the man somehow? Her wide open mouth gives the image a sinister edge however – this is not something the man would see having succumbed to her embrace. It is almost as if the look by the woman is some sort of celebration of finally getting the man into her clutches – where he sees a warm, motherly act of tenderness she has different motives and has used this as a way of drawing him in.


My first encounter with Freud was with the second project in the course and I distinctly remember feeling shock at the language and subject matter of the essay. I also failed to see how a paper over a hundred years old was anything other than of historical interest – I certainly did not see how this was relevant to the study of visual culture. Approaching this project however, I felt  much more comfortable tackling Freud and engaging with the notion of the Oedipus complex (despite the much more shocking connotations this has as opposed to fetishism.) Maybe all of this reading is starting to sink in?


BBC (N.D.) Photography – genius of photography – gallery – Richard Billingham available at: [Accessed on 6 September 2016]

Badger, G. (2001) The genius of photography: How photography has changed our lives. London: Quadrille Publishing.

Billingham, R. (2014) Ray’s a laugh. New York: Errata Editions.

Buchanan, I (2010) Oxford Dictionary of Critical Theory. New York: Oxford University Press inc.

Butler, J. (2006) Gender trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity. New York: Taylor & Francis.

Cotton, C. (2014) RAL. in Richard, B. (2014) Ray’s a laugh. New York: Errata Editions.

D’Alleva, A (2012) Methods and Theories of Art History (2nd Ed.) London: Laurence King Publishing

Evans, J. and Hall, S. (eds.) (1999) Visual Culture: The Reader. London: Sage

Foster, H. et al. (2012) Art since 1900: Modernism * Antimodernism * Postmodernism. (2nd ed.) London: Thames & Hudson.

Freud S. (1924) ‘The Dissolution of the Oedipus Complex’ pps. 313-322 Freud, S. (1991) On Sexuality: Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality and Other Works. London: Penguin.

Hudson, M. (2012) Edvard munch: Images from the depths of the soul In: The Telegraph (28th June 2012) available at: [Accessed 29 August 2016]

Macey, D. (2000) The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory London: Penguin books

Minsky, R. (1995) Psychoanalysis and gender: An introductory reader. New York: Taylor & Francis.

Pooke, G. and Newall, D. (2008) The Basics: Art History. Oxford: Routledge.

Project 3-4: Author? What Author?

Read Michel Foucault’s essay ‘What is an author?’ in ‘Art in Theory 1900-2000’ and Roland Barthes ‘The death of the author’ in ‘Image, Music, Text’ and make notes before answering the following questions.

Notes on ‘Death of the author’ by Roland Barthes

In ‘Death of the author’, Bathes is concerned with questions of authority and power between author and reader – there is no ultimate authorial meaning for readers to uncover in a text. Advocated critical and analytical reading of texts taking into account historical contexts and positions as a means of showing how the authority of the author as primary producer of a literary text is a myth. Texts are produced in the act of reading, drawing on the cultural and political perspectives of the reader – never fully according to the intentions of the author. (Sturken and Cartwright, 2009: 52-53)

The creator of a text should not have the monopoly on its interpretation as other readings are equally tenable. (Pooke and Newall, 2008: 169)

The death of the author leads to the birth of the reader – a texts unity lies not in it’s origin but it’s destination. Context for the reader is key as this constitutes a frame through which they interpret a text. (Chandler, 2008: 200)

The author is traditionally evoked as the origin and explanation of a text, however, the idea of the author is tyrannical as it encloses a text within a single meaning. The death of the author signals the liberation of the reader as they no longer have to accept a single meaning enshrined on the biography of the author. (Macey, 2000: 83-84)

Barthes argument has three strands:

  1. When an author creates a character and gives it a voice, they cease to be the one speaking.
  2. All writing is simply words on a page, therefore, it is the language itself that speaks not the author. (A fundamental premise of structuralism.)
  3. All writing is quotation. (Buchanan, 2010: 110-111)

“The image of literature to be found in ordinary culture is tyrannically centred in the author, his person, his life, his tastes, his passions.” (Barthes, 1977: 143)

“The explanation of a work is always sought in the man or woman who produced it…the voice of a single person, the author, ‘confiding’ in us” (Barthes, 1977: 143)

“The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture” (Barthes, 1977: 146)

“Once the author is removed, the claim to decipher a text becomes quite futile.” (Barthes, 1977: 147)

“a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination.” (Barthes, 1977: 148)

“to give writing it’s future, it is necessary to overthrow the myth: the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the Author.” (Barthes, 1977: 148)

Notes on ‘What is and author?’ by Michel Foucault

Explores the notion of a historically variable author-function defined by a variety of discourses and institutions. The emergence of the author-function is a relatively recent occurrence, for example, ancient epics do not have authors in the modern sense of the word. (Macey, 2000: 84)

The concept of the author did not always exist, and although it will probably pass out of relevance it is not exactly dead. The term ‘author-function’ is used rather than author – this is linked to the idea that an author/producer must stand behind any given image/text. (Sturken and Cartwright, 2009: 53)

“The coming into being of the notion of ‘author’ constitutes the privileged moment of individualization in the history of ideas, knowledge, literature, philosophy and the sciences.” (Harrison and Wood, 2002: 949)

“The author-function is…characteristic of the mode of existence, circulation, and functioning of certain discourses within a society.” (Harrison and Wood, 2002: 950)

“We are used to thinking that the author is so different from all other men, and so transcendent with regard to all languages that, as soon as he speaks, meaning begins to proliferate, to proliferate indefinitely.” (Harrison and Wood, 2002: 952)

“if we are accustomed to presenting the author as a genius, as a perpetual surging of invention, it is because, in reality, we make him function in exactly the opposite fashion.” (Harrison and Wood, 2002: 953)

“The author is…the ideological figure by which one marks the manner in which we fear the proliferation of meaning.” (Harrison and Wood, 2002: 953)

“as our society changes…the author-function will disappear, and in such a manner that fiction and its polysemic texts will once again function according to another mode, but with a system of constraint – one which will no longer be the author, but which will have to be determined or, perhaps, experienced.” (Harrison and Wood, 2002: 953)

Look at the work of Sherrie Levine and Cindy Sherman or another artist whose work seems either to be derived from a reading of the two articles you’ve read or whose work is better explained in the light of them.

Cindy Sherman

Cindy Sherman became famous in the early 1980s for ‘Untitled Film Stills’; a series of 69 black and white photographs in which the artist appears herself in “a frequently banal yet charged moment that might be a still form a film.” (Badger, 2001: 165)  The work references Hollywood and European cinema of the 1950/60s, a significant time for Sherman as this was when she was growing up and becoming aware of movies and television. The series evokes genres such as film noir and the French new wave; directors like Hitchcock and Antonioni; stars like Brigitte Bardot, Simone Signoret and Sophia Loren. However, the series is non specific and requires prior knowledge of the genre conventions Sherman is appropriating in order to be successful – as Badger (2001: 165) observes, this is a vital part of the series post modern credentials: we are not only required to recognize that we are viewing a scene from a film but also to appreciate and decode Sherman’s work through our shared knowledge of the still and moving images that enter our lives.

For Cotton, (2004: 192) the series is a prime exemplar of post modern art photography: in the series Sherman is both artist and model – both observer and observed. Yet, these images are neither self portraits or about a particular film star or character, rather, ironic and deliberate imitations or simulations of a type. Sherman’s work examines image and identity through the route of visual pleasure: for the viewer satisfaction is derived from developing narratives for the ambiguous scenes depicted.

Sturken and Cartwright (2009: 322) argue that this is an example of a post modern artist working reflexively – that is the work is based on self awareness and immersion in everyday, popular culture. Sherman is also responding to contemporary feminist discourse that challenged representations, the male gaze and structures of identification:

“Sherman’s compositions reflexively pose questions for viewers about spectatorship, identification, the female body image and the appropriation of the gaze by the woman photographer as her own subject.”

Another important distinction that makes ‘Untitled Film Stills’ post modern is that Sherman offers this feminist critique through visual practice rather than the written word as offered by feminist film critics of the same period. Although the series can be read as a critique it also ironically shows Sherman’s pleasurable engagement in the nostalgic fantasy images she creates in the series.

In ‘Art Since 1900’ (2012: 47-8), Foster et al make the connection between the Sherman’s work and the ideas of Barthes and Foucault. More accurately they assert how critics versed in post-structuralist theory reflected in the mirrors of Sherman’s photographs, creating an endlessly retreating horizon of quotation from which the ‘real’ author disappears. This is all well and good, but in her introduction to ‘Cindy Sherman: The Complete Untitled Film Stills’ (2003: 12) she states:

“I didn’t think of what I was doing as political: to me it was a way to make the best out of what I liked to do privately, which was dress up.”


“It wasn’t about dressing up to look like mom, or Doris Day, it was just fun to look different. It had nothing to do with dissatisfaction, or fantasizing about being another person; it was instinctive.”

If you take these comments at face value, and it is unlikely having recently graduated from art school that Sherman was unaware of the cultural discourse of the time, these comments only go to further validate the notion of the death of the author – whether Sherman intended her work to have any of the connotations that were bestowed upon it is irrelevant, after all: “a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination.” (Barthes, 1977: 148)

Sherrie Levine

Sherrie Levine is part of what was termed the ‘pictures generation’ of artists and participated in the ‘Pictures’ exhibition of 1977 curated by Douglas Crimp. These artists can be described as characteristically postmodern and share a resistance to modernist ideas of purity and individuality. Common concerns are the ideological role of photographic representation, issues of gender, ethnicity and sexuality, and, the changing dynamic of cultural politics. (Pooke and Newall, 2008: 183)

Levine’s work relies heavily on appropriation – predominately photographing other artists work and presenting this in a gallery setting without manipulation. With ‘After Walker Evans’ Levine presented a series of copies of photographs Walker Evans made during his participation in the FSA documentary project during the American depression. Levine raises questions about the ethics concerning copies and originals, issues of authenticity and image ownership, the value of photography through display in a contemporary fine art gallery and how historical records are viewed by different era’s. (These historical images of abject poverty were originally presented in the era of Reganomics.) (Sturken and Cartwright, 2009: 208-9)

Levine’s work is best explained as questioning and critique. Themes explored are: the idea of the original, (which is the real work of art? The Copy or original?) the male artist as master, the value of images (the aura placed on art by museums, galleries and the art market) and questions of reproduction, the artist as sole creator of a unique work.

In ‘Art since 1900’, Levine’s practice is described as an “act of piracy” (Foster et al, 2012: 48) which questions the authorial status of the image makers. The argument is made that the ‘original’ images that Levine appropriates are themselves “involved in an unconscious but inevitable borrowing from the great library of images…that have already educated our eyes.” (Foster et al, 2012: 48) The examples given are Edward Weston’s photograph of the nude torso of his son Neil which bears a debt to Greek classical sculpture. By fusing her own status as author with that of Weston’s, Levine goes beyond challenging copyright to addressing Weston’s very claim on originality. The male nude is one of the most culturally disseminated in western culture: originating in Greek classicism, the model for endless roman copies and seen through the prism of the post-Renaissance world as decapitated, armless fragments and cut off torso that has come to symbolise the body’s rhythmic wholeness. The ‘author’ of this image is therefore “dazzlingly multiple”: nameless antique sculptors, archaeologists, museum curators and even modern advertisers:

“It is this perspective that Levine’s violation of Weston’s “authorship” opens his work, setting up a long line of claimants to this privilege and making a mockery of the very idea of Weston himself as the image’s origin.” (Foster et al, 2012: 625)

Levine is arguing that appropriation has always been endemic in the fine arts, the implication being that photography merely makes this appropriation easier.

If the birth of the reader is at the expense of the author is there still any of Benjamin’s ‘aura’ left?

I suspect that Barthes and Foucault are in agreement with Benjamin about the aura, in some ways the essays are an extension of his argument about the removal of privilege from works of art. However, for me these essays share the similar issue that they are written from a particular ideological perspective about what the authors aspire the world to look like. The realities of capitalist society however mean that the aura of a work of art as well as the assertion of authorship is a reality driven primarily by the economic workings of the market. The theories exist as interesting discourse and help us gain sense of the world around us and arts relationship within it.

In ‘Art since 1900’ the argument is made that appropriation artists such as Sherrie Levine belong to a generation where the ideas of Benjamin are second nature. The ‘Pictures’ artists attempted to demystify the idea of the aesthetic original and the idea of the authentic photographic print at a time when the fine art photography market was growing. A truth that is counter to Benjamin’s claim that the aesthetic magic an artwork possesses would be invalidated by the very nature of photography.

“Earlier much futile thought had been devoted to the idea of whether photography is an art. The primary question of whether the very invention of photography had not transformed the entire nature of art – was not raised.” (Foster et al, 2012: 625)

Does any of this explain or validate the unregulated nature of the internet?

I can see a connection between the utopic aspirations of Foucault, Barthes and Benjamin and the ‘so -called’ unregulated internet. The ideal for the internet age is that everyone not only has access to boundless information, but also has the ability to create their own content and engage in multiple discourse. The reality however is that the internet is a potentially bewildering area to navigate. It is true there is unlimited information but reliability and relevance are real concerns. The way most of us use the internet is very much guided by huge corporations like Google and Facebook, the rules these outlets operate by, and which we become complicit in, may not be overt – but are certainly not free or unregulated. The recent scandals of internet surveillance brought to light by Edward Snowdon and others proves that anyone believing the web is a place of absolute freedom of expression is simply wrong.

It is not governments that particularly regulate internet content however – it is the general public. Examples of this are demonstrated by Jon Ronson in his book ‘So you’ve been publicly shamed’ which explores how the lives of normal people can be destroyed by reaction to an ill-judged social media confession or clumsy tweet: a kind of “vicious mob rule.” For example, Justine Sacco who had her life ruined after tweeting a poor taste joke about the racial politics of AIDS in Africa. After posting her ‘joke’ to her 170 twitter followers she boarded a plane and found after her 11 hour flight the tweet was the number one trending topic around the world and reaction was rabidly negative. She lost her job, was subjected to rape and death threats and spent the next year unemployed, depressed and virtually house bound. Ronson likens this treatment to the Stasi: “we have created a surveillance society where we are always looking for clues to our neighbours’ inner evil…” (Adams, 2015) The suggestion here is that the intention of the author is unimportant – only the reaction of the reader matters. A view that chimes with Barthes and Foucault’s assertions, if not the spirit, of the death of the author.

Ironically, by showing empathy for Sacco via Twitter, Ronson himself became a target for online abuse and was branded a racist. And yet, as testified by the Arab spring, WikiLeaks and the recent documenting and sharing on social media of police brutality against black people in the US, it is clear that the internet can give a voice to the voiceless. This use, which is important and powerful contrasts sharply with the witch hunts, with an air of quiet resignation Ronson observes: “We are now turning into a surveillance society where the smartest way to survive is to go back to being voiceless.” (Ronson, 2016)

Does this invalidate the interest in the artist’s or creators intent at the time of making?

This is an interesting question that both feeds into the notion of the death of the author and the idea of the Emperor’s new clothes. Barthes and Foucault argue that it is the reading taken from a text that is important – the intention of the creator is irrelevant. This is an appealing idea, but, taken to it’s logical conclusion runs the risk of finding meaning where there is none. On the other hand – does this matter? The introduction to ‘The Complete Untitled Film Stills’ Cindy Sherman talks of her motivation being dressing up and nostalgia for the films of the 1950/60s that she grew up with. As a recent graduate of art school I find it difficult to believe that she was not familiar with the work of Barthes and Foucault, it is possible however that these were not in her mind consciously as she worked on ‘Untitled film stills.’

It is also entirely possible for an artist to produce work that is filled with intended meaning that is missed by the audience. Sherrie Levine could be an example of this, I would imagine an enormous amount of people being unengaged and even angered at her work. While notions of copyright can be picked upon, it is unlikely that the casual observer would pickup on the critique of the myth of authorial originality. So, while it may be legitimate to say that with the death of the author every reader is entitled to an opinion about a text, this does not mean all readers conclusions are equally valid. The elitism and reliance on a high degree of cultural awareness that is connected with this sort of post modern art seems to me to alienate many, a kind of in joke for academics not intended to be accessible to the general population.

My preferred answer to this question relies on the truth that as individuals we all have a greatly differing perspective on life and our experience can have a dramatic effect on our responses. My personal way of approaching a text is with an open mind and the realisation that there is rarely a definitive reading, there are many possible conclusions available, and it is possible for many of these to be valid at the same time.


Adams, T. (2015) ‘Jon Ronson: ‘Time and again on Twitter we act like the thing we purport to hate’’ The Guardian, 14th December 2015 [accessed online] Available at: [Accessed June 2016]

Barthes R. The death of the author pps. 142-148 Barthes, R. (1977) Image, Music, Text, London: Fontana Press.

Badger, G. (2001) The genius of photography: How photography has changed our lives. London: Quadrille Publishing.

Buchanan, I (2010) Oxford Dictionary of Critical Theory. New York: Oxford University Press inc.

Chandler, D. (2008) The Basics: Semiotics. Oxford: Routledge.

Cotton, C. (2004) The photograph as contemporary art. London: Thames & Hudson.

Evans, J. and Hall, S. (eds.) (1999) Visual Culture: The Reader. London: Sage

Foster, H. et al. (2012) Art since 1900: Modernism * Antimodernism * Postmodernism. (2nd ed.) London: Thames & Hudson.

Foucault M. What is an Author pps. 949-953 Harrison, C. and Wood, P. (eds.) (2002) Art in Theory 1900–2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas. Oxford: Blackwell.

Macey, D. (2000) The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory London: Penguin books

Pooke, G. and Newall, D. (2008) The Basics: Art History. Oxford: Routledge.

Ronson, J. (2015) So you’ve been publicly shamed. United Kingdom: Pan MacMillan.

Ronson, J. (2016) Jon Ronson: How the online hate mob set its sights on me.The Guardian, 28th January 2016 Available at: [Accessed June 2016]

Sherman, C. et al. (2003) Cindy Sherman: The complete untitled film stills. New York, NY: The Museum of Modern Art.

Sturken, M. and Cartwright, L. (2009) Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press


Project 3-3: Myth is a Type of Speech

Read ‘Myth Today’ by Roland Barthes on pps. 51-58 of the course reader and make notes before considering the following questions:

Look up who Minou Drouet was. Why does Barthes cite her?

Minou Drouet was a child prodigy/poet famous in France at the same time as Barthes was writing ‘Myth Today’. Her collection of poems ‘Abre, mon ami’ (Tree, my friend) sold 45 000 copies on publication and attracted controversy with Drouet’s mother being accused of being the true author. This was overcome with the eight year old Drouet writing poems before witnesses – the month after the publication of ‘Abre, mon ami’ Drouet agreed to write a poem on the subject of “Paris Sky” and gained admission to France’s society of authors, composers and music publishers.

In ‘Myth Today’ Barthes states:

“A tree is a tree. Yes of course. But a tree as expressed by Minou Drouet is no longer quite a tree, it is a tree that is decorated, adapted to a certain type of consumption, laden with literary self-indulgence, revolt, images, in short with a type of social usage which is added to pure matter.”

On one level, Barthes is describing how the signified of a tree is transformed by the poetic language – which is how it “is no longer quite a tree”. Barthes is clearly not enamoured by the poetic language used by Drouet, and with terms like “consumption”, “self-indulgence” and “social usage” it appears his objections are on an ideological rather than artistic level. The argument here is his entire thesis about myths in microcosm – the natural form of the tree is transformed into something other by the application of myth: “a type of social usage which is added to pure matter.”

The choice of Minou Drouet by Barthes to illustrate this point is an interesting one – although her story and the controversy around it was certainly prominent at the time of writing, surely there are other examples that would more strongly emphasise Barthes point? Perhaps the age of Drouet is significant and Barthes is hinting at another myth – that of the artist as genius, that greatness is something inherent in a very few, select individuals. From Barthes seeming disdain for Drouet’s artistry he is definitely at odds with the those that have designated her poems as being great which shows another myth of how the quality of a piece of art is evident in the piece itself when this is clearly decided by a select group of elite taste makers.

Think about his reference to a bunch of roses and a black pebble. Can you think of a couple of examples of elements within images that you know that signify passions, emotions or even other objects or events?

Barthes argues that a bunch of roses can signify passion, however, combined together this signifier and signified result in the sign of passionified roses. The roses cannot be disassociated with the message they carry, the rose as signifier cannot be confused with the rose as sign “the signifier is empty, the sign is full, it is meaning.” The term ’empty signifier’ refers to a signifier where meaning is vague or unspecified. They can be interpreted in different ways, and can even mean what their interpreters want them to mean. (Chandler: 250)

The importance of context in enabling meaning to be read is emphasised with the example of a black pebble which can have multiple meanings: it can be “a mere signifier” or it can be weighed with a definite signified, for example, a death sentence in an anonymous vote makes it become a sign.

The question posed here is more difficult than it first seems and I struggled to arrive at concrete examples as there are so many possiblities. Also, as Barthes points out in his analysis, while there can be a preferred way of reading an image, meaning is also multiple.

The colour of the two examples given by Barthes are significant in our reading of their meaning: red – passion, black – death. This led me to start thinking about how colour can signify meaning and then how this can be read in multiple ways depending on context. Possible meanings for red and black are:


passion – as demonstrated in Barthes example of roses

Danger – for example warning signage

Stop – on traffic lights

Socialism – the red flag

Anger – ‘seeing red’


Elegance – little black dress

Death – traditional clothing for funerals

Depression – ‘dark mood’

Illegality – black market

Night – darkness

Barthes myth changes the real into an ideological statement. For example Soviet Socialist Realist painting (see Portrait of Stakhanov by Leonard Kotliarov, 1938.) Find other examples.

Portrait of Stakhanov (1938) by Leonard Kotliarov (here) is a painting in the Soviet Socialist Realist style which depicts miner Aleksei Stakhanov underground and working at the coal face. Socialist Realism was borne out of the idea that art should advance the ideological cause of the Soviet Union and was characterised by the heroic depiction of labour and glorification of the communist party. The style of the art needed to be realistic as it focused on familiar aspects of daily life and needed to be relevant and comprehensible to the proletariat. Stakhanov became famous in 1935 when he hewed 102 tonnes of coal during his six hour shift – 14 times his quota which was declared a world record by Pravda. Stakhanov was used as a symbol of Soviet propaganda to stimulate workers to produce and encourage both competition between workers and promote a particular way of both working and living.

An interesting counterpoint to Socialist Realism is the Farm Security Administration documentary photography project during the depression in the USA. Clearly, the Kotliarov painting has ideological intent and is a calculated form of Soviet myth making, but I would argue the FSA project has the same intent. Because the images are photographs rather than paintings we (falsely) imbue them with a greater sense of reality, but these images are just as constructed with the aim of giving a very specific narrative about the great depression, the poor people caught up in it and their attempts to look for a better future. Take for example ‘Migrant Mother’ (here) by Dorothea Lange, an image celebrated as a classic example of documentary photography. Rather than being a portrait about a specific person (in fact, the identity and name of the woman in the picture was not known) the photograph is a representation of motherhood and poverty in general with the intent of showing dignity in the face of adversity while being aimed at people completely removed from the reality that the woman depicted and her family face.


Think carefully about the passage on meaning and form. “The meaning is always there to present the form; the form is always there to outdistance the meaning.” Annotate an artwork of your choice to illustrate your thoughts on this passage.

Barthes presents a thesis for two semiological systems, language and myth. The linguistic system consists of signifier, signified and sign while the mythical system is a meta-language, staggered in relation to this so the signifier on the plane of myth is the sign in the system of language. Barthes gives the following visual representation to illustrate his ideas:

Myth schema

The following definitions are used to distinguish terms in each system:

Meaning – the signifier on the 1st system/plane of language – works on the level of denotation.

Form – signifier on the plane of myth (also sign on the plane of language.) Works on the level of connotation.

Concept – the correlation of these two terms, the signified on the plane of myth with which no ambiguity is possible.

For the mythical signifier form is empty but present; meaning is absent but full. Barthes demonstrates this seeming contradiction with the example of viewing the landscape through the glass pane of a car window. Our view alternates between awareness of the glass window and the scenery beyond meaning that the glass is both present and empty and the landscape both unreal and full.

The function of myth is to empty reality, to state facts without explanation, it is natural and is ‘what goes without saying.’ By passing from history to nature the need for complexity is removed , myth appears to organise the contradictions of the world without depth, there is a blissful clarity which enables things to appear to mean something by themselves.

I have chosen a photograph by Chris Killip, Youth on wall, Jarrow, Tyneside (here) to illustrate the Barthes statement.


Analysis on the level of meaning – that is the first semiological plane of language: a black and white photograph of a young man, possibly in his late teens sat on a brick wall. The youth is viewed from the side, his knees brought tightly up against his chest met by his forearms and tightly clenched fist. His hand rests on his forehead, his eyes are  tightly shut. His hair is shaved very short, his clothes look old, possibly second hand, a jacket, the stripe of a jumper can be just made out, baggy trousers, thick work socks and boots which seem large in comparison to him. A number of clues exist in the picture which help us read what is happening: together the clothing suggests a working class background for the youth, the condition of the clothes could indicate poverty, the brick of the wall and in the background could indicate an industrial area, the body language of the youth indicates he is in some distress or angry.

On the level of myth we are encouraged to build a narrative for the youth, his life and prospects. The image as a whole can be read as a critique of the decline of industry in the north of England and the lack of hope and poverty that is a consequence. Vallely (2012) states that this image has been wrongly used to illustrate the destructive impact of Margaret Thatcher’s economic policies – wrongly because the picture was taken in 1976, 3 years before Thatcher became Prime Minister.


I find the concept of myth fascinating, ‘Myth Today’ is a slippery piece to get to grips with however. Writing up this project I feel like I know what I want to say yet cannot articulate it – the examples in the essay help make sense of the piece as a whole but I seem to tie myself up in knots the more I go back to it. I also find it interesting that Barthes rails against the way myth perpetuates bourgeois ideology when he himself sees only what he wants to. The examples I have chosen I think illustrate how the left can distort the truth through myth as easily as the right.


Barthes, R. (2009) Mythologies. London: Vintage.

Buchanan, I (2010) Oxford Dictionary of Critical Theory. New York: Oxford University Press inc.

Chandler, D. (2008) The Basics: Semiotics. Oxford: Routledge.

Crow, D. (2010) Visible signs: An introduction to semiotics in the visual arts (2nd edition) Lausanne: AVA Publishing SA.

Evans, J. and Hall, S. (eds.) (1999) Visual Culture: The Reader. London: Sage

Gottlieb, R (2006) A lost Child. The New Yorker, November 2006. Available at [accessed May 2016]

Macey, D. (2000) The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory London: Penguin books

Mavor, C (2010) Tragic Candy. Cabinet magazine, issue 40. Available at [accessed May 2016]

Siegelbaum, L. (2015) Year of the Stakhanovite. Available at: [Accessed May 2016]

Sturken, M. and Cartwright, L. (2009) Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Vallely, P. (2012) Still lives: Chris Killips’s images of Northern working life chronicle and define a bygone era. The Independent, 17th March 2012. Available at: [accessed May 2016]


Project 3-2: Structuralist Analysis

Structuralist Analysis

In order to address this project, it is first necessary to investigate what is meant by structuralist analysis.

Pooke and Newall (2008: 102) define structural analysis as the way semiotic theories have been used to develop the sign systems within a text or social practice. The aim being to reveal the signifying relationships, values and/or assumptions within the world they represent.

Chandler (2008: 4)  asserts that Saussaurian theories constituted the starting point for structuralist methodologies and that these represent an analytical method involving the application of the linguistic model to a wide range of cultural phenomena.

A key point in Saussure’s conception of meaning was emphasising the difference between signs – language for him was a system of functional differences and oppositions. The concept of the relational identity of signs is the heart of structuralist theory and Saussure emphasised in particular negative, oppositional differences between signs. Concepts are not defined positively (i.e. In terms of content) but negatively (i.e. By contrast with items in the same system: “what characterises each most is being whatever the others are not.” (Chandler, 2008: 21) To illustrate this Chandler uses the example of how we might teach someone who did not share our language the meaning of the term red: the point would not be made by showing a number of red objects, however, success would be more likely showing a number of objects that are identical except for colour, thus, emphasising the red object.

Syntagm and paradigm

Distinction is key in structuralist semiotic analysis, two structural axes are seen as applicable to all sign systems:

Syntagmatic: the horizontal axes, concerning positioning. Syntagmatic relations are possibilities of combination and refer intratextually1 to signifiers present in a text.

Paradigmatic: the vertical axis, concerning substitution. Paradigmatic relations are functional contrasts and involve differentiation and refer intertextually2 to signifiers absent from the text.

The ‘value’ of a sign is determined by both the paradigmatic and syntagmatic relations – they provide the structural context within which signs make sense and are the structural forms through which signs are organised into codes. (Chandler, 2008: 83-4)


Chandler (2008: 85-6) defines syntagm as the orderly combination of interacting signifiers which form a meaningful form within a text – sometimes called a ‘chain.’ They are made within syntactic rules and conventions, for example, a sentence is a syntagm of words (also – paragraphs, chapters.) The ways which various elements within a text may be related to each (syntagmatic relations) are created by linking signifiers from paradigm sets. These are chosen based on whether they are conventionally regarded as appropriate, for example grammar.

Crow (2010: 39) describes syntagm as a collection of signs organised in a linear sequence. For example, a sentence: words are arranged in a syntagmatic sequence, each sign having a syntagmatic relationship with the sign before and after, the value of the sign being affected by the other signs around it. A visual example could be clothing: a syntagm made up of individual garments whose value is affected by combination with other signs, these combinations are governed by convention for dressing ourselves which could be termed taste.


Chandler (2008: 87) states that paradigmatic analysis seeks to identify pre-existing signifiers which underlie a texts content. This involves consideration of the positive/negative connotations of each signifier, which is revealed through the use of one over another. This is referred to as ‘binary oppositions’, an example would be public/private.

The issue of why a particular signifier is used over another is termed ‘absence’ – signs take their value from what they are not. Two examples of this are ‘what goes without saying’ (what is assumed/taken for granted/obvious.) and ‘conspicuous by its absence.’ (the flaunting of convention or making a statement.)

For Crow, (2010: 40) paradigms have two basic characteristics: the units of the set have something in common and each unit in the set is obviously different from the rest. Meaning does not come from linear signification alone, when making combinations of signs we are faced with a series of individual choices where one can be substituted for another in the same set. For example – letters of the alphabet. We understand letters as paradigms of the same set, the choices of combinations made create words which in turn can become other sets of paradigms such as nouns and verbs. Changing combinations can also completely change meaning. This direction of thought can seemingly be extended indefinitely: the way language is used can create further paradigms such as jargon or rhyming words in poetry can be described as paradigms based on sound.

Barthes analysed the syntagmatic and paradigmatic implications of clothing in ‘The Fashion System.’ The paradigm was items which could not be worn at the same time on the same part of the body while the syntagm represented how these different elements came together to form an ensemble.

1 intratextually: relates to internal relations within a text.

2 intertextually: refers to links in form and content which binds a text to other texts.

Find two examples of naturalistic paintings of a particular genre – landscape, portraiture or whatever – and annotate them to discover the similar conventions of representation: medium, format, allusion, purpose, etc.

Naturalism is defined as “an attempt to create life-like representations of people and objects in the world by close observation and detailed study.” (Pooke and Newall, 2008: 224) In my research I found that naturalism as an art movement was not easily defined with examples being given across the ages.

Courbet - the stone breakers

Gustave Courbet: The Stone Breakers (1849)

Millet - the gleaners

Jean-François Millet: The Gleaners (1857)


The artists for the two pictures I have chosen are both contemporaries of the Barbizon school of early 19th century French artists who were concerned with minutely observing natural settings and actively rejected the conventions of academic art in their choice of subject matter.


Seemingly depict everyday activities of rural workers.

No eye contact, in fact The Stone Breakers in Courbet’s picture are facing away. This gives the figures in each painting an everyman feeling, the pictures are about the activities that are being engaged in rather than abou individuals.

Subject matter – everyday working activities not usually depicted in paintings.

Both oil paintings.

Show physical labour.

The protagonists are common people – not the traditional subjects of oil paintings.

The pictures are situated outside.

Non idealised representations, the depictions are distinctly unromantic.

The labour depicted seems to be difficult although the protagonists of both paintings seem committed and focused on the tasks they are engaged in.

The figures in both paintings are clearly the subjects rather than to add interest to the landscape.

Both paintings invest a certain nobility to the figures depicted and the tasks they are engaged with – they have an air of quiet dignity.

Find two examples of portrait photography, one formal and one informal, and annotate them to see what conventions from the formal are observed in the informal and give your thoughts on why this might be so.

For this part of the project I have chosen two photographs from the series ‘Marine Wedding’ by American photographer Nina Berman and represent the informal and formal sides of wedding photography.

Picture one (here) is a portrait of a man and a woman. The clothing they wear suggests that they are a newly married couple: the woman is wearing a white wedding dress and veil and holds a red bouquet of roses – clearly she is the bride. She is young and beautiful, there has been a great deal of care taken in her appearance from the way her hair is styled to a detail like the necklace she is wearing which seems specifically chosen for the occasion and to compliment the rest of her clothing. Her skin is tanned which may be her natural colouring but could also have been accentuated by visits to tanning salons in the lead up to wedding which shows the weeks of preparation that have gone in to her looking her very best for her wedding day.

The man is in military uniform so it is not immediately clear if he is the groom or a relative of the bride, for example brother or even father. It can be assumed he is the groom however based on the convention of servicemen wearing their forces uniforms to get married. The red piping of the uniform also matches the red detail of the brides dress and the wedding bouquet, it is also a convention for elements and colours used in the bride and grooms clothing to be repeated in other aspects of the entire wedding design. The man appears to have been severely burned and is disfigured – it is difficult to ascertain his expression and even age because of this. Combined with the uniform it would be logical to think that he has suffered these injuries in service, the medals her wears would also indicate that he has seen active duty. It is impossible to tell if he has any other injuries but he seems to be standing in a slightly awkward and rigid way which would suggest he has further ailments we cannot see – the facial burns are to such a degree that it seems unlikely the injuries would be confined to his face alone.

Formal portraits of two people at a wedding are normally reserved for the bride and groom so it would seem logical to assume this is what we are looking at, it is possible that the man could be a relative or even friend of the bride but seems unlikely – if this was the brides brother for example you would expect to see someone else in the picture as well, such as a partner or other family members. The other main clues that this is a formal wedding photograph are the posing which is deliberate and rigid which suggests the couple have been closely directed to pose in this way, their rigidity also suggests they are uncomfortable and maybe even self conscious to be standing this way. Neither faces the camera but look to the side out of frame, if this was a natural portrait we would expect the sitters to be looking straight at the lens, and by extension the viewer of the photograph, but this does not happen here. The dappled background is clearly one used by professional photographers and the lighting, although subtle, appears to be artificial and the photograph looks like it has been shot indoors which would indicate a professional photographer using studio lighting has taken the shot.

The expressions that the couple have on their faces prove problematic to our reading of the photograph – the bride seems serious, even solemn, and it is impossible to read any information from the groom because of his disfigurement. A simple explanation of the brides expression could be that she is nervous, being put centre stage at a wedding as the bride is daunting. Being closely directed on how to pose by the photographer, as it appears she has been here, does not lead to a relaxed posture – perhaps she is concentrating on maintaining the pose so the image required by the photographer can be captured. On another level however, the bride could be mirroring her groom – he is unable to show expression due to his facial injuries and it would seem natural that as his bride she would be acutely aware of this and would subconsciously appear this way herself. Another reading could be that the bride is not enjoying the event and possibly even regretting being married. She appears very young and we are left to wonder about the possible circumstances of the wedding. How long have the couple been together? They could either be childhood sweethearts or have been together for a much shorter length of time. Either way, the bride must have felt a sense of duty to go through with the wedding. If the wedding was planned before the event that has led to the grooms injuries then she would feel duty bound to go through with it out of both pity for her partner and fear of how not doing so would appear. Likewise, if the wedding was planned following the grooms injury she would feel similarly duty bound to go through with it.

The second photograph (here) is a candid/unposed shot of a two people taken from behind the larger figure of the two who almost completely obscures the figure behind him. The faces of neither figure are visible in the picture and there is very little information to suggest there identity and what they are doing – in fact, the image is predominately of an upper body shot from the rear. Key indicators to inform what we are looking at are largely missing, for example facial expressions, background detail – despite this, I believe a great deal of information can be gained through close analysis:

The figure in the foreground is a man: he is taller than the figure behind, he wears a formal jacket which is traditionally male attire, his head is bald.

The figure in the background is a woman: her nails are long and neatly manicured with small red jewel details stuck onto two of them, her arms are bare – although we cannot see what she is wearing this suggests she is wearing some sort of dress, she is wearing a number of rings which are of a feminine style – men are more likely to wear fewer rings and they would be of a plain design.

Once we arrive at the conclusion that we are looking at a picture of a man and woman we can begin to explore both their relationship and the activity they are engaged in – this also adds weight to our initial reading of gender. The couple appear to be dancing, the arms of the woman around the man’s neck is the conventional way couples slow dance together, the closeness of their bodies combined with this reading would suggest they are a couple. There is slight motion blur in the photograph which suggests they are moving (dancing) rather than stood still in an embrace. The conclusion that this is a photograph of a couple who are romantically engaged dancing together leads to the conclusion that this is a picture of their first dance at their wedding. A number of clues lead to this: we have already noticed that the man is wearing a formal jacket and that the woman has taken care of her appearance by having her nails carefully manicured. The small, red jewels on two of her nails match the red piping that is just visible in the man’s suit – it is conventional for the clothing worn at weddings to have a unified theme. The bare arms of the woman suggest she is wearing a formal dress, probably a wedding dress. Although the woman has a number of rings on her fingers, the left hand is the closest to us and we notice she is wearing a wedding ring – although this could be unconscious this seems significant – our attention is being drawn towards the ring – in fact, it is the closest point to the camera lens. And finally there is the cultural knowledge of the significance of a couple’s first dance at their wedding combined with the fact that it is perhaps the only time that it would be appropriate to photograph a couple dancing.

The two images here are from the same series ‘Marine Wedding’ by Nina Berman, the knowledge of this changes our reading of each image significantly. Separately and with no other knowledge, I believe the preferred reading of each image is of a couple on their wedding day. Clearly photograph one is the more obvious to read of the two, however, the relationship between the couple is not completely explicit and requires assumptions to be made. Photograph two requires more work for us to arrive at the reading that what we are viewing is a couple having their first dance on their wedding day, although more implicit I believe close reading makes this as evident as photograph one. Both pictures are linked by the need to understand the cultural conventions being displayed. Taken together, the pictures represent the narrative of the couples special day – the formal, posed, studio lit picture one and the candid picture two which although unposed is as unnatural as the first. The knowledge that these pictures are part of a larger series by photo-journalist Nina Berman which has the intent of showing how injured American serviceman adjust to life when returning from war changes our reading significantly. Picture one becomes a pastiche of the wedding photographer’s style with picture two representing the documentary mode of the photographer. It could be argued that wedding photography is a form of documentary in itself representing a factual record of the couples day, the unusual angle of picture two gains more gravitas – this is no longer a ‘grab shot’ but an image taken, and selected, by a professional photo-journalist which suggests there was intent involved.


I initially thought that this would be a quick project to complete as there are no readings involved. I soon found more to try and understand than I first bargained for, although I do think I have gone some way to put a boundary on my research as I will detail below.

Firstly, structuralist analysis. Although I now have a better understanding of what this means (which is also necessary for assignment 3) I am struggling to see how this can be applied practically. The problem is linked to that of semiotic analysis – while there are guidelines about how to go about this there is not a definitive explanation or consensus about what structural analysis means. I did not come across an example that put structuralist analysis into practice during my research and experiencing this would help me understand what is meant more clearly. What I have taken from my reading however is the understanding that structuralism focusses on what is represented within the image. The concepts of syntagm and paradigm are interesting and the more I think about these the more I understand that it is about how different signifiers work together to make signs that is key. The notion that what is missing from a text being a key driver in our ability to understand is something that seems to make perfect sense and be completely obvious once it has been pointed out. Also, the idea of ‘what goes without saying’ is powerful and shows how cultural knowledge is critical to being able to decode texts. (This also leads onto the concept of myths which is the basis of the next project.)

I quickly found that naturalism is an artistic style that has many varying interpretations over history and is also used as a synonym for realism although this is perhaps not the best definition. I was very much in danger of falling down the rabbit hole at this point and get carried away with researching naturalism and become preoccupied with this rather than concentrating on what the project was asking for.

Writing about each of the images I undoubtedly felt more comfortable with the photographs – as this is the form I am most interested in this is hardly surprising. It is of note however that I found the photograph much easier to identify with as a representation of reality rather than the paintings. Clearly the fact that these are not contemporary works is also a factor – my knowledge and comfort at being able to discuss art rather than photographs is something for me to consider and work on.




Buchanan, I (2010) Oxford Dictionary of Critical Theory. New York: Oxford University Press inc.

Chandler, D. (2008) The Basics: Semiotics. Oxford: Routledge.

Crow, D. (2010) Visible signs: An introduction to semiotics in the visual arts (2nd edition) Lausanne: AVA Publishing SA.

Evans, J. and Hall, S. (eds.) (1999) Visual Culture: The Reader. London: Sage

Macey, D. (2000) The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory London: Penguin books

Pooke, G. and Newall, D. (2008) The Basics: Art History. Oxford: Routledge.

Sturken, M. and Cartwright, L. (2009) Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press




Project 3-1: The Rhetoric of the Image

Read the Roland Barthes essay Rhetoric of the Image on pps. 33-40 of the course reader and make notes.

Notes on ‘Rhetoric of the Image’

In ‘Rhetoric of the Image’, Barthes asks whether images can be analysed in the same way as language and whether methods of semiology can be applied. The relationship between image and text and the nature of photographic truth, amongst other things, are also explored. He asks the questions: How does meaning get into an image? Where does it end? What is there beyond? For his analysis Barthes uses an advertising image for Panzani pasta sauce in order to submit the image to a “spectral analysis of the messages it may contain.” (Evans and Hall, 1999: 33) He chooses advertising because “in advertising the signification of the image is undoubtedly intentional”, any signs within the image are fully formed with a view to optimum reading: “the advertising image is frank, or at least emphatic.” (Evans and Hall, 1999: 34)

Barthes touches on many concepts within ‘Rhetoric of the Image’, below I have summarised some of this and how it has informed my approach to part two of this project which requires analysis of current advertisements.

The Three Messages:

Linguistic message:

This is the supportive text within the image/advertisement, usually in the form of captions, slogans and labels and is easily separated from the image itself. On the first level of signification (denotation) all that is required to understand is knowledge of the language employed. A second order of signification (connotation) can also be implied however. In the case of the Panzani advertisement, Panzani is not only the name of the firm but also suggests “Italianicity.” These romanticised/stereotypical connotations of what constitutes Italian culture are aimed solely at the French audience the advert is aimed at, Italians themselves would not recognise this. The linguistic message works on both a perceptual and cultural level.

Coded iconic message:

This is a symbolic message that works on the level of connotation. The reader must play a part in understanding the image by applying their knowledge of systematic coding to the image.

For the Panzani advert, Barthes asserts that even with all linguistic signs removed from the image we still continue to ‘read’ and understand what we are looking at as it contains identifiable, nameable objects.

Non-coded iconic message:

This works on the level of denotation – a photograph can be described as a message without a code, that is, we simply read the medium itself.

Barthes points out that it is easy to separate the linguistic message from the coded/non-coded iconic messages, however the difference between these is not so easy to separate as they share the same iconic substance. Also, the viewer receives both the perceptual and cultural message at the same time, in other words, the medium cannot be separated from the message.

Anchorage and relay:

Text on an image provides what Barthes termed a ‘parasitic message’, the purpose is to quicken the reading with additional signified, it can also be a powerful method of altering or fixing meaning in an image.

Text has two possible functions when coupled with an image: anchorage or relay –

Anchorage directs us to a preferred reading of an image through what by fixing what Barthes terms ‘a floating chain of signifiers.’ On a coded (connoted) iconic message, the text helps the reader interpret the signifiers they are presented with. On a non-coded (denoted) message, the text aids recognition. Readers are ‘remote controlled’ by anchorage because the meaning has been chosen in advance, is often ideological in purpose and can have a repressive value when applied to an image – an example would be newspapers. Anchorage can also provide meaning to ambiguous texts.

Relay is less common than anchorage and appears to advance reading by supplying meaning which is not present in the images themselves. For example, film dialogue or comic strips which work in a complementary way with the image.

Analogical/digital code:

Near the beginning of ‘Rhetoric of the Image’, Barthes asks the questions: can analogical representation (the copy) produce true systems of signs and not mere simple agglutinations of symbols, and, is an analogical (as opposed to digital) code possible? The terms analogical and digital immediately seem to mean types of media, at least that is the modern understanding, however, this is not what Barthes means here.

Code refers to the framework within which signs make sense. Digital codes are paradigms which contain units that are clearly different from each other but also have something in common, for example the alphabet. Analogue codes are paradigms where the distinction between each unit is unclear, for example music and dance. Many analogue codes are reduced to digital codes as a means of reproducing them in another form, for example, musical notation.

Denotation and connotation:

Connotation and denotation are often described in terms of levels of representation or levels of meaning.

Denotation is a sign consisting of signifier and signified and the first order of signification, is straightforward and refers to the physical reality of the object that is signified. It is the literal, obvious or common sense meaning of a sign about which there is a relatively broad consensus. For example, a photograph of a child always represents a child no matter who takes the actual photograph and photographs of different children all represent the same meaning of a child on a denotative level.

Connotation is the second order of signification and is the way the denotative sign is attached with additional signifieds. It is arbitrary – meanings are brought to texts by the reader based on their understanding of rules and conventions and personal knowledge. As conventions vary from culture to culture the way texts are read varies between communities.

Make brief analyses of two current advertising images you find in your everyday life, either in magazines or on hoardings.

For this project I decided to tackle the suggestion in the brief literally and selected the two advertisements presented on bus stops that were closest to my home. This meant I had no direct influence on the advertisements chosen so my personal preferences and prejudices did not direct my study in any way.

Sugar Free Cherry Coca-Cola


The linguistic messages contained within this advertisement are simple:

      • Coca-Cola cherry with zero sugar

Presented at the top left of the add in a simple white font – easy to read and directly emphasising the product that is being advertised.

      • The bottle: Coca-Cola zero calories cherry

The text on the label of the bottle reinforces the information given with the text at the top left with the subtle difference that “zero calories” has been added. The lettering of Coca-Cola is in the companies famous house style.

      • The logo: Coca-Cola

At the bottom right of the image, the famous Coca-Cola brand symbol which reemphasises how important branding is to this product.

      • Taste the feeling

Placed below the Coca-Cola brand image showing that this message is important to the brand, indeed “taste the feeling” is a familiar advertising slogan used by Coca-Cola which succeeds in adding a level of trust to what we are being shown in the advert.

The placement of each of these linguistic messages helps us guide the reader through the advert itself: the eye is drawn to the top left corner and “Coca-Cola with zero sugar” before taking in the bottle label and then finishing with the familiar brand symbol at the bottom right with is coupled with the also familiar slogan. This has the effect of moving from something new (or at least not familiar) Cherry Coke Zero to the safe familiarity of the Coca-Cola branding and slogan. The effect of this is to establish trust with consumers who may be familiar with Cherry Coke Zero but are familiar with and enjoy other Coca-Cola products.

The photography in the advert shows a hand reaching from the bottom right toward the bottle of Cherry Coke in the centre. The viewer is placed in the point of view of the owner of this hand, it is immediately suggested that reaching for the bottle ourselves would be something we would like to do. The Coke bottle itself and the hand holding it are the only part of the of the image that is in focus which succeeds in directing our attention to the product being sold. This effect displays conventions shown regularly in photography and film and is a style often employed by glossy magazines showing aspirational lifestyles. This works on the level of cultural perception and subliminally suggests that consuming this product is something that is desirable and important. Beyond the bottle, the figure of a woman with a broad smile is seen to be the person offering the Cherry Coke to us. Although we cannot see the woman clearly a number of clues suggest her appearance and the relationship between her and the man accepting the bottle. Firstly, her smile is wide and genuine – she is clearly happy which could be her natural disposition making her someone it would be pleasant to spend time with, she is also pleased to be recommending and sharing the Cherry Coke itself. The suggested narrative is that this is a product she enjoys and she is pleased it is being accepted by the unknown recipient. Other clues are long hair which seems well kept – she is someone who cares about her appearance. Her arm is bare and it appears she is wearing a vest top which suggests confidence in her body and appearance which in turn would mean she is attractive. There is an idea of youthfulness without being specific to age that allows the viewer to apply their own thoughts on the woman’s possible age. Her nails are clearly visible holding the bottle and are well manicured and painted red. This reinforces assumptions that have already been made: the picture is of a woman, she cares about her appearance and is probably quite attractive, she has some sort of relationship with the recipient of the bottle – definitely positive, possibly romantic, she is of a happy, confident disposition. The cherry red of the nails also echo the flavour of the Cherry Coke, the colour of this being indistinguishable from normal Coca-Cola.

The foreground hand can only be assumed to be male, the shallow depth of field do not allow a clear visual clue about this although the size of the hand is a factor combined with it being slightly darker on the forearm which could be an effect of the lighting conditions or indicate dark arm hair. The nails are a point of difference in that they are not painted as opposed to the woman’s hand, a plain band wedding ring can just be made out on the left – this style of ring would be more likely to be worn by a man and also reinforces the connotation that we are looking at the interplay between a married couple. The hand dominates the bottom left corner of the advert without overpowering the image, being put into the recipient of the Coke bottles point of view we are made to identify with his perspective making it a logical extension that we should enjoy the Cherry Coke in the same way he is, that trying the product will not only be enjoyable but will also lead to a desirable lifestyle and the approval of our close companions.

The gender stereotypes at play here are subtle but significant – Cherry Coke as a product is one that would appeal more readily to women than men, particularly the zero calorie variant since women are thought to be more conscious of the health and slimming advantages of diet products. Despite this, the advert manages to subvert the generalisation that this is a product for women by suggesting that all men need to do to enjoy it is to put aside their unfounded prejudices and machismo and give it a go – not only will they be pleasantly surprised but they will also have the added lifestyle and relationship benefits that are suggested within the coded-iconic message of the advert. Despite this subtle subversion, the overriding ideology of the advert is traditional and conservative showing a domestic scene between a heterosexual married couple which suggests Cherry Coke is not something to be suspicious of but a product to be enjoyed by ‘normal’ people.


Sky Q


This advert is for a new service launched by Sky television: Sky Q. The linguistic message describes one of the features and benefits of the service, that the viewer can “pause in one room and carry on in another” this is topped by the words Sky Q and what appears to be a logo for the service, a large Q which appears futuristic and has connotations of space travel. The circle of the letter is broken by at the bottom right by a line that appears to be a bright light, this indicates speed of movement and is reminiscent of the way space craft in orbit moving at high speed are represented in science fiction which contains suggestions of being not only fast but futuristic. This new logo for the service is countered by the much smaller but also familiar Sky logo, that this is recognisable and trusted provides counterpoint to the unknown and untested new Q symbol and empowers it with a level of faith in the service being offered. In between, the message “This is fluid viewing” provides anchorage to the image presented at the top of the advert: a television form which bubbles of liquid are escaping across the mainly blank space ahead of it. (they have the appearance that liquids take on in zero gravity – which links to the futuristic/space age appearance of the Q logo.) Without the text we may struggle to identify what we are looking at, however, the term “liquid viewing” combined with the statement that we can “pause in one room and carry on in another” allow us to make sense that this is a metaphor for the natural yet futuristic service Sky are now offering. Below the television is a remote control which is both familiar and new to anyone who is aware of Sky’s current products. The controls used for Sky television would be familiar with the styling of their remote controls, and while the one represented here is similar it has enough difference to enable current customers to realise that this new service represents a continuation of what they are already familiar with while also being something new and interesting.

This advert is part of a larger campaign linked by the analogy of “liquid viewing” and focussing on the further benefits of the Sky Q service. On a basic level the ads are concerned with product awareness, further from that they work on the level of connotation to suggest the new television package is futuristic, space age, natural and organic to use. It appears that the advert is mainly targeted at existing customers, enticing them to sign up for the new service by showing ways it will improve their current experience. The subtle use of the new remote control here is both exciting and reassuring – it represents a continuation of what the customer already knows about the product and service while suggesting developments that it is desirable to take advantage of and be part of.


I began this project buoyed with completion of the second assignment and with a set of new, self imposed rules about time keeping and limits of research. Unfortunately, I almost immediately broke these rules and found myself sucked down the familiar rabbit hole of masses of reading and note taking, albeit I managed to convince myself that this was a benefit. There are massive ideas within this project, studying Barthes alone proved a time consuming task and I decided to spend more time on this in the belief it will be of benefit for the rest of the section as his writings are used for another three projects. Semiotics is also an enormous and complex subject area and one that I am being unrealistic about if I believe I can gain a handle on it through this project. The majority of my notes fell under these broad headings which led to an element of confusion when I came to write my notes as I was not disciplined enough to keep on topic.

So what now? Again I will attempt to reign myself in and work in a more concise manner. The words of advice given by a fellow UVC student in recent email correspondence resonate with me: “I think we cannot cover all the important reading for a certain subject but to open windows for future enquiry. There are whole courses developed for every theme in some universities and those might take several months.” This is exactly what I have been telling myself, somehow hearing it from someone else helps however. So, plans going forward:

      • Set a deadline, but make it realistic. A book about time management I read a while ago talked about how we often set unrealistic deadlines which are rarely if ever achieved and recommended doubling the timescale that is initially arrived at.
      • Be more concise with note taking. This is what is taking up the majority of my time – I need to spend more time analysing what is important in the material I am reading and noting this down.
      • Break projects down into more manageable pieces. My practice up until now has been to do all my reading and then start to write up. I am increasingly finding however that the process of writing helps to solidify thoughts – the process of writing itself helps explore ideas.
      • Write projects more in note form. I have often been too hung up on trying to present each project as if it is an essay which in turn has taken more time.


Buchanan, I (2010) Oxford Dictionary of Critical Theory. New York: Oxford University Press inc.

Chandler, D. (2008) The Basics: Semiotics. Oxford: Routledge.

D’Alleva, A (2012) Methods and Theories of Art History (2nd Ed.) London: Laurence King Publishing

Evans, J. and Hall, S. (eds.) (1999) Visual Culture: The Reader. London: Sage

Hall, S (2011) This Means This This Means That: A User’s Guide to Semiotics (Second Edition) London: Lawrence King

Howells, R. Negreiros, J. (2011) Visual Culture 2nd Ed, Cambridge: Polity Press

Macey, D. (2000) The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory London: Penguin books

Pooke, G. and Newall, D. (2008) The Basics: Art History. Oxford: Routledge.

Sturken, M. and Cartwright, L. (2009) Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Project 2-4: Good Taste?

Read the Dick Hebdige essay ‘The Bottom Line on Planet One’ on pps 99 – 124 of the course reader before answering the following questions:

Does  Hebdige  make  a  clear  distinction  between  ‘high’  and  ‘popular’ culture?

‘The Bottom Line on Planet One’ is an examination of the differences between Ten-8, a serious, academic magazine about photography and The Face, at the time the essay was written (mid 1980s) a cutting edge magazine about, amongst other things, music and fashion. While Hebdige is a clear advocate of Ten-8 (indeed, the article first appeared in the magazine) his thesis is not as simple as stating that Ten-8 represents high culture and The Face popular culture. Indeed, Hebdige does not use the terms ‘high’ and ‘popular’ culture, rather, he sees Ten-8 and The Face as being so different that they are divided by a chasm which is as absolute and inaccessible as the gulf which separates one element from another. In order to compare and contrast the two he takes the unusual step of imagining that they are represented by completely different worlds within a galaxy.

Ten-8 is world one: here, power and knowledge are ordered and precedence is given to written and spoken language over “mere (idolatrous) imagery”. He imagines that on the first world  there are a priestly caste of scribes who are guardians of knowledge who determine the rules of rhetoric and grammar. A subordinate group of technical operatives serve the priesthood in the engraving of images to illustrate, verify or supplement the text produced by the scribes. Although a progressive faction within the priesthood has granted provisional autonomy to pictures meaning that the scribes now seek to situate them within an explanatory historical and theoretical framework, the same old order of a clearly defined society prevails.

On the second, much larger world represented by The Face, the hierarchical ranking of word and image has been abolished. Truth is first and foremost pictured, “looking takes precedence over seeing.” Language serves to supplement the image and functions to explain its origins, functions and effects. The world’s vertical axis has collapsed and organisation of sense is horizontal – that is it is flat. Rather than scribes, priests or engravers knowledge is dispensed by a “motley gang” of bricoleurs, ironists, designers, publicists, image consultants, hommes et femmes fatales, market researchers, pirates, adventurers, flâneurs and dandies. The place that is occupied by religion and politics in the first world is replaced with “winning the game” in the second. The name of this game is the conversion of the now into the new. Due to the piracy and multiplicity of images there is a plurality of gods – space and time are discontinuous and in a sense do not exist. Because there is no history there is no contradiction and sense resides at the level of the atom. The world turns like a kaleidoscope – each month the cycle is completed in intense, vivid configuration.

Rather than making the distinction between high and popular culture, Hebdige is describing an ideological struggle. Despite being clearly a citizen of the first world and worried about what the future holds for his society due to the second world’s influence on it, he cannot fully condemn The Face. He states that it goes out of its way to confound expectations, the writing, photography and design are good and occasionally excellent which he sees as rare in British pop journalism. Despite describing the first and second worlds as being at war throughout his essay, towards the end he states that, “a text is not the world” and that no one has to live there or even pay a visit. Clearly he is worried that serious, academic work with a political edge is under threat by magazines like The Face that prize style and consumerism above all else. Written in 1985 at the height of Thatcherism, there is a sense he is trying to make sense of how the world is changing through his article but is unable to launch into full polemic by either completely defending the first world or condemning the second. He seems to recognise that he is not part of the culture for which The Face represents their way of life so cannot really break into or understand their world. The staid, elite, highly controlling world of planet one seems much less appealing to me than planet two, despite all of its apparent faults. The extended analysis of planet two is also the major part of the essay with the amount of space dedicated to examining planet one taking up much less time and space. I wonder how well it would fare put under the same extended assault?

Whether he does or not, what are his main arguments against what he calls the ‘People of the Post’?

Hebdige uses the term ‘People of the Post’ to refer to the position adopted by second world critics – post referring to poststructuralist and postmodern thought and theories. Unlike critics of the first world (John Berger is used as an example) who seek to place images within a web of narratives designed to authenticate its substance and allow the image to tell its story. The disciples of the Post (Jean Baudrillard and Roland Barthes are mentioned) work in the opposite direction – instead of trying to restore the image to its authentic context they set out to undermine the distinction between good and bad, legitimate and illegitimate, style and substance. He refers to the ‘project of the Post’ as being to replace the dominant (Platonic) regime of meaning with a radical anti-system which promotes the articulation of difference as an end in itself. The factions of the Post are described as multifaceted and interests include attacking the authority and authorship of the first world discourse which guaranteed truth, hierarchy and the order of things. Second world forces include “anarchists and mystics” who form an impossible class refusing law and demanding subjectivity with guarantees. The referent disappears, then the signified and we are left with a world radically empty signifiers: “no meaning. No classes. No history. Just a ceaseless procession of simulacra.”

Explain what you see as the difference between high and popular culture today.

In the modern world I am not sure that the terms ‘high’ and ‘popular’ culture have much use. Previously, high culture would be used to describe literature, fine art, classical music and opera but this list has changed over time. For example, novels were not studied in Universities until the mid-twentieth century because they were deemed too low brow. Cinema was originally seen as a mass, popular medium and while this remains the case arthouse cinema which would be considered high exists alongside blockbuster, mainstream popcorn movies.

Some examples of the blurring between high and low culture:

Classical music – many orchestras now hold concerts of film or popular music while pop and rock bands collaborate with classical orchestras.

Poetry – on the face of it one of the most highbrow of all art forms and yet there is a growing popularity taking poetry back to its origins as a spoken, performance art form with slam poetry events.

Cinema – Christopher Nolan can direct a hugely successful trilogy of Batman films while also producing work like Inception which has been described as arthouse for the multiplex.

Literature – Fifty Shades of Grey becomes a publishing phenomenon despite being savaged by reviewers, driven by word of mouth, yet shares space on supermarket booksellers shelves with prize winning authors like Ian McEwan.

Comic books – have long been tagged as only for children or the uneducated but are now seen as being a cutting edge art form that can tackle adult subjects in complex and challenging ways, as well as being a popular form of storytelling.

It may be useful to explore where the term culture before deciding if the terms ‘high’ and ‘low’ mean anything anymore. Raymond Williams describes culture as one of the most complicated in the English language, among other things, culture refers to a way of life as well as to works and practices of artistic activity. (Williams, 1983) Adam Kruper believes it is best to break culture down in component parts, that is: beliefs, ideas, art and traditions. James Clifford believes culture is a consensus opinion, along with taste being linked to class and upbringing with the privileged being the ones who enjoy high culture and the masses partaking in low – the assumption being that high culture equals quality. There is also the idea that exposure to high culture can be an improving force and that our taste can be developed and improved. (Sturken and Cartwright, 2009)

If being able to distinguish between high and low culture is based on taste, the question this then raises is who are the tastemakers? Taste is not something that is innate but is culturally specific and relates to class, cultural background, education and aspects of identity. In ‘Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste’ (1979) Pierre Bourdieu provided a description of tastes and their origin in patterns of class distinction. Through extensive research he found that taste is used by individuals to enhance their positions within social order and that distinction is the means through which they establish their tastes as different from that of the other, lower classes of people. He found that this did not translate to class position as we traditionally understand it as based on economic status but was linked to the concept of cultural capital:

“Taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier. Social subjects, classified by their classifications, distinguish themselves by the distinctions they make, between the beautiful and the ugly, the distinguished and the vulgar, in which their position in the objective classifications is expressed or betrayed.”

He concluded that taste is learned through exposure to social and cultural institutions that promote class based assumptions about “correct taste.” An example would be museums and art galleries which exist not only to educate about the history of art but to instil a broader sense of what art is tasteful and not.

A key criticism of Bourdieu’s ‘Distinction’ is that it only sees taste as trickling down from the educated elite to the lower, less educated classes. This does not take into account how cultural forms that begin as expression of marginalized culture or class can trickle up to more affluent groups. An example could be Jazz music in the 1920s and a more recent rap and hip-hop in the 1980s. Globalisation also means that cultural values are able to travel and influence in a variety of directions with speed and ease, despite large geographical and political distance youth culture can look very similar in their clothing choices in both the USA and central Asia.

The changing attitudes towards kitsch artworks is an interesting aside in this question. Previous to the pop art movement of the 1960s kitsch was a term generally used to describe bad taste or tacky items. This changed however when kitsch aficionados began to recode objects and artworks that had previously been judged to have little or no artistic value as good rather than bad taste and the term began to be used in the affirmative sense when referring to items of nostalgia. Enjoying kitsch however is an ironic statement not least because the ability to appreciate kitsch items requires understanding that they are in opposition to what we traditionally think of as good taste or high culture – that is you need to be able to recognise good aesthetics in the first place to appreciate kitsch. What seems in the first place to be a democratic rather than elitist way of appreciating art is really more exclusive than the traditional forms of high culture.

In the light of developments in the media and other branches of the arts and culture, which is ascendant today, the First or the Second world? Is it flat or round?

I am not sure that the metaphor of the two worlds at war used by Hebdige is either useful or attractive way of thinking about the divisions between high and popular culture. Certainly, if his intention is to show the issues inherent in world two he fails because in spite of the negative aspects he dwells on at length the rigidity of world one simply leaves me cold. The chaos of planet two is worth embracing simply because it offers more freedom and choice than that which is offered in the first world. Hebdige knows this and his essay has an air of lament for what has passed and will never return.

In the 30 years since his article was written the real world has moved on immeasurably. Rather than thinking of the flatness of planet two as unnatural I like to think of it as a way that everything becomes level, hierarchies are broken and artworks lose the distinction between high and low and the connotations of good and bad taste that they contain. Today, there is an unprecedented access to information and culture of all types which is truly democratic. We no longer have to wait for validation and can produce artwork ourselves and put out into the world through the internet – almost everyone has the access and ability to do this.

This is what I think when I am feeling optimistic. When I am feeling less so the weight of choice is so heavy that I find it quite bewildering, when you have access to everything where do you start and how do you know what is good? The choice of any cultural form I consume, be it music, film or art is driven by the finite amount of time I have available. With this in mind I rely heavily on taste makers helping me with my choices. For example music: I grew up listening to independent music in the early 1990s, it was a time when access to this type of music was difficult to gain and the bands I followed were introduced to me by New Musical Express. Records had to be sought out and it was not uncommon for me to purchase music based only on what I had read about it, sometimes never having even heard the band. This process of having to go out of my way to follow bands and musicians made me feel like I was in some sort of ‘in crowd’ – my taste was validated by the amount of work and research I had put into seeking it out.  Now, I am still interested in music and genre is less important as there is an increasing cross pollination between styles. Music is readily and instantly available through the internet and I no longer need to search out what I want to listen to. And yet, my time is more of a premium so I need to make sure that which I do have available is used wisely, I need to rely on arbiters of taste like newspapers and magazines to point me towards something I might enjoy listening to – so have things really changed that much?

Maybe the freedom of choice of that the flat planet two represents is nothing more than an illusion and we still live in the highly stratified planet one, a world that pretends to be flat but is really round.

Find four  or  five  examples  of  contemporary  popular  culture,  the  same of ‘high’ round-world culture and the same of high referencing popular culture. You might like to see if you can find examples of popular culture referencing high culture.

Contemporary popular culture:

Pop music

Reality television


Popular novels

Celebrity magazine – Heat, Hello, OK

Tabloid newspapers


High ’round world’ culture:

Fine art




Classical music

Foreign language/art house cinema

Broadsheet newspapers



Art galleries and museums

High referencing popular culture:

Pop art

Street art

Orchestras playing popular music

Plays turned into films

Popular culture referencing high culture:


The concept album e.g. The Who’s rock operas

The Simpsons

Fake antique furniture

‘Fine art’ Ikea prints


Bennett, Tony; Grossberg, Lawrence; Morris Meaghan (Eds.) (2005)  New Keywords: A Revised Vocabulary of Culture and Society, Wiley-Blackwell, Revised Edition

Buchanan, I (2010) Oxford Dictionary of Critical Theory. New York: Oxford University Press inc.

Evans, J. and Hall, S. (eds.) (1999) Visual Culture: The Reader. London: Sage

Macey, D. (2000) The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory London: Penguin books

Sturken, M. and Cartwright, L. (2009) Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Williams, R. (1983) Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. London: Fontana Press.

Project 2-3: The Society of the Spectacle

This project requires reading an extract from “The Society and the Spectacle”, ‘Separation Reflected’ by Guy Debord on pps. 95-98 of the course reader before considering the following questions:

Weltanschauung – a comprehensive philosophy or world view?

Weltanschauung is defined as a particular philosophy or view of life, the term literally translates as ‘world view.’ It is a fundamental concept in German philosophy and epistemology which was first said to have been used by Kant before being popularized by Hegel.

Freud discusses Weltanshaunng in ‘A philosophy of Life.’ Near the beginning he notes the difficulty in translation as Weltanshaunng is “a specifically German notion which it would be difficult to translate into a foreign language.” Attempts to do this are so futile “it can hardly fail to strike you as inept.” He offers this useful definition:

“By Weltanshaunng, then, I mean an intellectual construction which gives a unified solution of all the problems of our existence in virtue of a comprehensive hypothesis, a construction, therefore, in which no question is left open and in which everything in which we are interested finds a place.”

The pursuit of Weltanschauung is one of mankind’s ideal wishes – it leads to security in life as one knows what to strive after and how to organize emotions and interests to the best purpose.

It could be argued that the entirety of ‘Society of the Spectacle’ is Debord arguing that the spectacle has become Weltanshaunng, although, he definitely does not see this in the positive terms defined by Freud. The spectacle also represents an intangible and yet ubiquitous way to control society – Debord argues that citizens often do not even realise what is happening. The spectacle represents ideology and alienation.

In paragraph 1 Debord states:

“In societies where modern conditions of production prevail all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles.”

With “all of life” Debord is clearly beginning his case for the spectacle as Weltanschauung – for the rest of “Society of the Spectacle” he will seek to define what exactly the spectacle is, but here we are left in no doubt of the important hold it has over citizens as being omniscient and overwhelming.

The notion that the spectacle is something intangible is quickly asserted with:

“Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.”

This suggests the spectacle is ideological while referencing the Marxist notion of alienation.

In paragraph 5 Debord directly mentions Weltanschauung:

“The spectacle cannot be understood as an abuse of the world of vision, as a product of the techniques of mass dissemination of images. It is rather a Weltanschauung which has become actual materially translated. It is a world vision that has become objectified.”

The choice of “world vision” rather than world view here is an interesting distinction – it suggests that the spectacle is forced upon society rather than citizens sharing its ideology. Despite being seemingly intangible and difficult to pin down, “has become actual materially translated” shows that the spectacle is something that is real. “Materially translated” and “objectified” suggest the concept of commodity fetishism, the Marxist idea that misplaced value is placed onto objects due to capitalism – Debord seems to be suggesting here that the concept of the spectacle represents an extension of this idea from reality to the conceptual.

What do you think Debord means by ‘the spectacle’?

This question is accompanied by the reassurance that this is more difficult than it sounds and that it is the attempt that is important here, which, after reading through the extract for the first time came as gentle reassurance! Debord writes in a way that is both difficult and simple, you seem to gain insight for it only to slip away proving allusive. The individual paragraphs in ‘Society of the Spectacle‘ each define what the spectacle is, yet, this can sometimes contradict what we have understood and read previously or can give emphasis to something we have not yet considered. As I come to understand a little more what Debord is trying to achieve through ‘The Society of the Spectacle’ I recognise that this is the point – the spectacle is  a concept which is difficult to define – this is part of the spectacles intention in fact. It is pervasive, far reaching and infiltrates all parts of society without even being acknowledged as existing by a large number of people in society.

Some of the language and terms in the extract are recognisable to me in what has been studied already, particularly from Marxist theory, although not necessarily presented in the same way. The more I read the more I began to be able to pick out ideas of commodification, alienation and ideology which seem to be the main thrust of Debord’s argument. Debord reasons that the spectacle represents a kind of evolution of commodification – the final form of the commodity will be the image – no longer a physical object we can own, having being replaced by appearing. The circulation of images becomes more important than the accumulation of commodities. Buchanan observes that in ‘The Society of the Spectacle’ it is not producing or owning things that drives society forward but how things appear and how they make us appear to ourselves that matters. The spectacle is the illusion that our fragmented, alienated life is in fact whole, true and authentic.

Sturken and Cartwright assert that Debord saw the spectacle as a metaphor for society – we live in an ongoing, constant spectacle. Through the spectacle we no longer experience life directly, life has become representation. The spectacle is an instrument of unification and a world vision that forges a social relationship among people in which images and practices of looking are central.

Pooke and Newhall define the spectacle as being used by Debord to characterize pseudo-events and commodified interactions under capitalism.

My eventual approach to gleaning a closer reading from the text was to break down each paragraph and then write whatever response came into my head. This could be an observation or recognition of some sort of nuance or sometimes a question. This approach helped and yet I still find a personal definition of the spectacle difficult to articulate. In the spirit of Debord’s writing style here are some personal responses represented as bullet points:

  • The spectacle is everywhere.
  • We do not know who controls or orchestrates the spectacle – such a notion may not even exist in a simple way we can comprehend.
  • The spectacle is a means of control but in a much more subtle way than we have come to understand – for example in capitalist structure of worker/owner.
  • We are complicit with the spectacle but may not even recognisee what the spectacle is or even its existence.
  • Debord uses terms, phrases and ideas that have a resonance, particularly with Marxism, but they are somehow changed which emphasises that the spectacle confounds our conventional understanding. For example: “the spectacle which inverts the real is in fact produced” suggests Marx’s description of ideology through which social relations are perceived in an inverted way (Marx uses the analogy of a camera obscura which gives an upside down view of the world) and groups this with the tangible idea of commodity production. This is a difficult but effective combination of both the abstract and the real.

The book was first published in French in 1967. Has the passage of time confirmed or contradicted Debord’s view?

A strength of ‘The Society of the Spectacle’ is that Debord did not confine his argument to specifics that would date his theses. This means that the ideas presented translate to the 21st century making them all the more powerful and Debord seemingly prescient.

Despite this, ‘The Society of the Spectacle’ does not achieve Debord’s revolutionary intent, today it is seen as an important work of philosophy rather than a political manifesto with real purpose to change the world through revolt. Debord himself became depressed in later life that his insights ceased to be a call to arms but rather a banal, if accurate, description of the modern condition. (Hussey, 2001) The spectacle as a term has become a cliché appropriated by post modernism to describe any contemporary process.

Will Self views the “genius” of Debord in ‘The Society of the Spectacle’ as characterising “the totalising capability of late capitalism so early in its post -industrial manifestation” and that it reads “as fresh as paint.” He recognises the importance of the “pseudo-events” which act to convince the citizens of the spectacle that they are able “to progress into a better future” when it is only the anointed few, the celebrities, who are imbued with the money and power that signify the ability to make choices. Debord’s concept of the spectacle has been so thoroughly appropriated by society that it is no longer used as short hand for the consumer society or post-ideological character of western ‘democracy’ which is woven by the internet and late capitalism.

John Harris believes the frequency that the spectacle is used to describe the “image saturated, comprehensively mediated way of life that defines all supposedly advanced cultures” leads to it sounding banal, yet, the frequency used also “speaks volumes about the power of its insights.” ‘The Society of the Spectacle’ points towards much that is prescient in the culture of the 21st century:

-Celebrity culture and the portrayal of lives whose freedom and dazzle suggest almost the opposite of life as most of us live it.

-The driving out of meaning in politics.

-Warnings about “purely spectacular rebellion”, for example, the Che Guevara T-shirt.

-Social media and “the white noise of most online life.”

The book describes that everything we consume, and if we are not careful, everything we do embodies a mixture of “distraction and reinforcement” that serves to reproduce the mode of society and economy that has taken the idea of the spectacle to an almost surreal extreme – ideas which we now term neo-liberalism.

Personally, the more I think about the themes contained in ‘The Society of the Spectacle’ the more I feel it articulates suspicions I have held for a long time – what is it to be a citizen in a late capitalist society in the 21st century? We are told we have never had so much freedom and access to information and yet it is also accepted there is no alternative to the lives we lead. There is so much information that we are unable to process it – what on the internet is real and what is false? There is no longer any distinction in political life, no left or right – only a consensus that this is the way things need to be. Facebook seems to represent the clearest example of how human experience has become inauthentic, spectacular and false – what people now understand as friendship. Our online presence is the way we present ourselves rather than through real life – more real than the real world. As John Harris observes “even the way we relate to each other has been so commodified it is no longer genuine.” There is no more depressing modern sight than that of citizens who seemingly only have an experience through the prism of their smart phone – if we do not record our experiences then they no longer happen and by doing this we lose the ability to live our lives directly.

Does his view that we “see the world by means of various specialized mediations” mean that we are having our view of the world controlled or that we simply don’t know what is propaganda and what is not?

My first reaction in my notebook to this quote from chapter 18 is ‘what does various specialized mediations mean?’ Perhaps it is that the spectacle makes us see (and believe?) the world that it is presenting.

“We see the world” reminds me of the term ‘global village’ popularized by Marshall McLuhan in reference to the growth of media in the early 1960s, and is term that Debord would surely have been aware. The access to information that we can experience through the internet has the potential to make us participants in this global village that is now a reality. The more likely response however, is that we passively take in the view of the world which is presented to us through rolling news and media outlets. We feel connected to what is going on without questioning that the views that we are presented with are those that the broadcasters choose to show – that which is deemed worthy of reporting. We feel a closeness to citizens around the world which is false.

I am not sure when the political world view reached a consensus through neo-liberalism but I am old enough to remember a time when there seemed to be real difference, not only in politics but in art, literature, music, films – even the high street. It seems today that we accept the homogenization of our lives without question, even those who oppose what they see as mass conformity struggle to define how or even what they are against. We believe that we are sophisticated readers of the modern world and its representations, we think that we would know propaganda if we saw it. This is because we think of propaganda in back and white 20th century terms rather than the complex description of the spectacle given by Debord which typifies propaganda in the modern world.

The film maker Adam Curtis seems to be highly influenced by Debord. He uses archive news footage along with a very personal viewpoint expressed through voiceover to try and make sense of the world. In a short segment he made for Charlie Brooker’s satirical Newswipe programme, he presents the idea that the news is so depressing and we are so detached from the events it contains that the only response is “Oh dear” – a defeatist reaction that has also become central to political control. He explains this by examining the political landscape of Putin’s Russia. We would normally associate Russia with the heavy handed propaganda and control of the Soviet Union, Curtis explains however that in modern Russia control is maintained by much more subtle and confusing means. Putin’s director of communications Vladislav Surkov has helped Putin remain in power for 15 years using techniques he learned from his previous life as a dealer of avant-garde art. Surkov turns Russian politics into a “bewildering, constantly changing piece of theatre” the aim of which is to undermine people’s perception of the world so they can never be entirely sure what is really happening. Surkov achieves this by backing many disparate groups in Russia, some of which are even enemies of Putin, before (and this is key for Curtis) letting the people know what he is doing. The effect is that no one knows what is real or fake and all opposition is kept constantly confused – the constant shape shifting is unstoppable because it is indefinable.

Curtis then transfers his gaze to the political situation in Britain and recognises a similar situation – after all, Russia has always had a strange, fractured and controlling political situation so this approach by Putin and Surkov is hardly surprising. He argues that in Britain everything told by politicians and journalists is confusing and contradictory – a position which plays into the hands of those in power. For example: the war in Afghanistan which nobody seems to know was a victory or defeat; ageing disc jockeys who are prosecuted for crimes that alleged to have happened decades ago while no one in the city of London has been prosecuted for the endless financial crimes being revealed there; the war in Syria which was initially against the Assad regime which we were told was evil until we discover his enemies  were even worse and began bombing them keeping Assad in power.

The epicentre of our non-linear world is the economy and Curtis presents George Osborne as the closest we have to a “shape shifting, postmodern politician.” The economy is growing and yet wages go down, the importance of cutting the deficit is used as a reason for austerity policies but it is revealed the deficit is actually increasing, quantitative easing contradicts austerity and debt reduction. Vast amounts of money has ended up in the top 5% of the wealthiest people and this is prevented from becoming a scandal because nobody seems to have a clear idea of what is happening.

The strange mood of our times is that nothing makes coherent sense. We live in a “constant vaudeville” of contradictory stories which stop any real opposition from appearing because they cannot counter with a coherent narrative of their own. Individuals become ever more powerless, unable to challenge anything because we live in a constant state of uncertainty. For me, Curtis’ description of the power of the media and politicians in the 21st century and the techniques they use to confuse and control is compelling and goes a long way to articulate and further much of what I understand from Debord’s arguments in ‘The Society of the Spectacle’.

Reification is the process of viewing the abstract as real (have a look at what Marx said on the subject); is the spectacle viewing the real as abstract or extreme reification?

Marx saw reification as being omnipresent in capitalism with all of its elements invoking a greater or lesser degree of reification. The fact that capitalism subordinates the lives of millions is obscured by commodity fetishism – an extreme form of alienation.

Lukács took this further by stating that modern capitalism is such that commodity fetishism can be extended to all fields of human activity – even consciousness.

John Harris uses the example of Facebook to prove the power of Debord’s argument and its relationship to reification: the Facebook friend is used as a way to monetise everything on the website, this inauthentic incorporation leads us to believe that the Facebook friendship is real when in fact it is classically, unbelievably spectacular. I find Harris’ argument compelling here and am led to conclude that the spectacle is indeed extreme reification.


I now feel quite seduced with Debord’s thrust in ‘Society of the Spectacle’ although I would by no means pretend to fully understand it. From a position of frustrated lack of understanding that I experienced at the beginning of this project I have slowly began to comprehend what Debord is explaining as well as appreciating his complex means of expression which is necessary to project the complex, contradictory nature of the spectacle. I have read through the rest of the book and it does not get easier as it progresses nor has my ability to glean meaning at first read through improved. I will stick with it however and return every now and again because of the respect I have gained and insight achieved from the first section that is the basis of this project. Hopefully further reading (I intend to ‘dip in and out’ in the future) will broaden my understanding, I can understand what John Harris means when he describes the well-thumbed copy of the book that he owns.

Workflow wise this project has helped me get back on track somewhat. Having felt a little lost and disappointed following the previous project I was initially quite perturbed by the even more dense and difficult to understand words to be studied for this project. Rather than take a ‘hopefully it will all make sense soon’ approach like I had with Bourdieu I stuck with this and revisited the text a great deal, much more than I have for any of the other projects so far, eventually breaking down the extract into digestible pieces and considering these in isolation. I often wrote whatever came into my head as a response rather than trying to come up with definitive answers, sometimes just writing questions. This way of working through a difficult text through writing seems to have been a small breakthrough for me. Similarly, I have tried to worry less about what I am writing for the project and encouraged the words to flow which has given me a strong sense of accomplishment – a lot of what I have written may not be directly relevant and I have certainly missed out much more that I could have said but as is stated in the course notes “it is the attempt [that] matters at the moment.” My new mantra!

Keywords and concepts for further research:

Appropriation art, Weltanschauung, the spectacle, reification, alienation, simulacrum

Key figures for further research:

Sherrie Levine (After Walker Evans), Walker Evans, Michael Mandiberg (, Guy Debord, Andy Warhol, Lichenstein, Jean-Paul Satre, Feurebach, Kant, Hegel, Marx.


Buchanan, I (2010) Oxford Dictionary of Critical Theory. New York: Oxford University Press inc.

Curtis, A. (2014) Oh Dear segment on Charlie Brooker’s 2014wipe. BBC. Available online [accessed August 2015]

Debord, G. (2009) The Society of the Spectacle. Eastbourne: Soul Bay Press

Evans, J. and Hall, S. (eds.) (1999) Visual Culture: The Reader. London: Sage

Freud, S. A Philosophy of Life. New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-analysis (1933) publ. Hogarth Press. Available online [accessed August 2015]

Harris, J. (2012) Guy Debord predicted our distracted society. The Guardian 30th March 2012 Available online [accessed August 2015]

Hussey, A. (2001) Situation Abnormal: the suicide of Guy Debord. The Guardian 28th July 2001 Available online [accessed August 2015]

Kaplan, R. L. (2012) Between mass society and revolutionary praxis: The contradictions of Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle. European Journal of Cultural Studies. Sage. Available online [accessed August 2015]

Macey, D. (2000) The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory London: Penguin books

Pooke, G. and Newall, D. (2008) The Basics: Art History. Oxford: Routledge

Self, W. (2013) Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle. The Guardian 14th November 2013. Available online [accessed August 2015]

Sturken, M. and Cartwright, L. (2009) Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Walker, B. (2012) The Big ideas podcast: Guy Debord’s ‘Society of the Spectacle’ The Guardian 28th March 2012. Available online [accessed August 2015]