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 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 3-1: 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 1-4: Ideology and Interpellation

This project requires reading the essay “Ideology and the Ideological State Apparatuses (notes towards and investigation)” by Louis Althusser in the course reader (Evans and Hall, 1999) before considering the questions below.

How does Althusser’s structuralism show here?

 First we need to understand what is meant by structuralism. According to Sturken and Cartwright (2009), structuralism is a set of theories which came to prominence in the 1960s the premise being that cultural activity (that is the laws, codes, rules and conventions that structure human behaviour) can be measured objectively as a science. Macey (2000) also notes that structuralism was an attempt to unify the human sciences by applying a single methodology.

Structuralism originates from the work of linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (although in ‘Course in General Linguistics’ he used the term system rather than structuralism) who attempted to show humans can be understood as though they are structured like language. Structuralism became a global movement adopted by other disciplines, for example, anthropology (Levi-Straus and Jakobson), philosophy (Merleau-Ponty), literary theory (Barthes – led to semiology), film studies (Metz), and Marxism (Althusser).

In the essay, Althusser first presents two theses as an approach towards this central argument on the structure and function of ideology. The first concerns the object which is presented in the imaginary form of ideology:

“Ideology represents the imaginary relationships of individuals to their real conditions of existence.”

Examples of ideologies being imaginary such as belief in God are given. Althusser says that it is only when you do not share the ideology that you can see it is imaginary.

The second thesis is that ideology has a material existence – Ideological State Apparatuses:

“an ideology always exists in an apparatus, and its practice or practices. The existence is material.”

The thesis is explained through Althusser’s observations of religion – an individual adopts a practical attitude and participates in the regular practices of the ideological apparatus, that is, he goes to church, attends mass, kneels, prays, confesses and does penance. Examples of belief in duty and justice are also given.

Subjects are said to have a consciousness, that is, they believe and freely accept the ideas of the ideology. However, they must act in accordance with these ideas and if they do not are thought to be ‘wicked’.

Althusser talks of  ‘obviousness’ – that which we cannot fail to recognise as true and defines this as an ideological effect. The example given is of a friend who knocks on the door – we recognize their voice and on opening the door find that what we have believed to be trues is so – that is that the person we are greeted with is the friend we recognised from their voice.

Althusser’s main thesis is that ideology hails or interpellates individuals as concrete subjects: if an individual shouts a greeting at us in in the street, we turn 180 degrees and recognise that the hail is directed at us and thus become a subject through the recognition that we are being addressed.

The idea of an individual as a an always-already subject is given through the example of a new child being born. The ideological ritual surrounding the birth forms part of the familial ideological configuration through the rituals, rearing and education of the family. Freud’s theories of the pre-genital/genital stages and studies into the unconscious are used to add weight to the argument here. The article ends with a consideration of Christian religious ideology.

In essence, Althusser shows his structuralism through the development of his argument and the examples/metaphors he uses to illustrate them through the essay. Through my reading I only managed to gain an overall rather than in depth view of structuralism with the majority of sources discussing how structuralism was a precursor of semiotics – theories that are discussed in much greater depth. Post-structuralism originated from  Derrida’s criticism of structuralism and the fact that the theory has moved on can perhaps explain why many of the books I have do not give it a great deal of consideration. Interestingly, Althusser is not always cited as a key figure in structuralism which leads me to wonder how closely he associated himself with this school of thought.

What does Althusser mean by ideology?

 The wording of the question suggests what I have learned to be true through my reading about ideology – there is no straightforward definition, in fact, it has multiple meanings. Howells and Negreiros (2011) consider ideology to be a “complex, shifting, frequently misunderstood term.” It is often invested with negative connotations, however, in the simplest sense it is the study of ideas, system of thought and systems of belief.

New Keywords’ (Bennett et al, 2005) gives an interesting extension from the point that Williams analysis in ‘Keywords’ ends. Williams states that ideology first appeared in English in the late 18thC as a direct translation of the French word idélogie originating from the work of a group of French enlightenment philosophers who aimed to bring scientific method to understanding the mind. Napoleon began the modern pejorative definition of ideology as an attack on enlightenment ideals and this definition expanded throughout the 19thC, used primarily by conservatives to label any supposedly extreme or revolutionary political theory or platform. Marx and Engels continued to use ideology in the pejorative sense to mean abstract or false thought, false consciousness, or unreality. In ‘The German Ideology’ (1845-7) Marx and Engels used the metaphor that ideology presents the world as if being viewed through a camera obscura – always upside down. Bennett et al (2005) describe ideology as a narrow set of conflicting beliefs (such as liberal, conservative, socialist) – it is always the opposing point of view that is ideological rather than ones own. They argue that in the ea.21stC, ideology as a political concept has diminished due to the end of the cold war and the seeming lack of alternative to democratic capitalism. The modern meaning of ideology is that it is likely to be a clash of civilizations (often religion) and that ideology is equated to idealism and opposed to realism.

At the beginning of ‘Ideology and the Ideological State Apparatuses’, Althusser defines ideology as world outlooks – for example religious, ethical, legal or political. However, he quickly begins to pick apart failings in ideology: he challenges us to think about an ideology we do not share, such as God, duty or justice, and points out that from the non believing point of view we can see that these ideologies constitute an illusion: “ideology = illusion/allusion.” He continues to state that ideology equals an imaginary representation of the real world.

The method in which ideology exists in the world is described as the ideological state apparatus –  the material existence of an ideology. Individuals who live in an ideology have an imaginary relationship to their conditions of existence, that is, relations of production and class. Ideology interpellates individuals as subjects, has no history, and has the effect of obviousness – that is, what we cannot fail to recognize. Subjects freely believe in the ideas promoted by the ideology accepting and acting accordingly to these ideas. There is the illusion of free will (false consciousness) as subjects choose to conform to ideologies, not conforming is seen as inconsistent, cynical or perverse:

“those who are in ideology believe themselves by definition outside ideology: one of the effects of ideology is the practical denegation of the ideological character of ideology by ideology: the ideology never says I am ideological.”

Individuals are “always-already” ideological subjects. This can be demonstrated by the way the rituals surrounding the expectation of a birth play out and the way a child is formed into the ideology of the family with all of the expectations that go with this:

“[there] is a mutual recognition of subjects and Subject, and the subjects recognition of each other, and finally the subjects recognition of himself.”

Is there in your view an area of visual culture where this idea may seem to act in an overt way? Find examples and make notes on them.

 The keyword in this question is ‘overt’, Althusser seems to go to great lengths to describe how the interpellation of ideology is a mainly covert process. A parallel can be drawn between the ‘soft power’ of ideological state apparatus that requires persuasion rather than the violent, physical coercion that would define the ‘hard power’ of repressive state apparatus. In the modern age where we are bombarded with visual culture and are quite sophisticated in reading their messages (although it could be argued some of these readings are based on understanding conventions rather than having a conscious understanding.) It is difficult therefore to think of many overt representations of ideology in western visual culture, perhaps the most obvious example of this is advertising.

As I write this in November, the advertising cycle is gearing toward the peak Christmas season. The most discussed commercials are for John Lewis and Sainsbury’s – interestingly neither of these directly sell the viewer anything each having a strong sense of narrative and boasting production values that would not be out of place in a Hollywood film.

Over the past few years, John Lewis Christmas adverts have become something of an event. Indeed this year the first showing of their commercial was advertised itself and greeted with a degree of anticipation. The adverts are interesting in that although they are different each year, (2013 featured an animation for example)  they follow a set of conventions that make them clearly identifiable – there is a narrative conforming to the John Lewis brand identity of family as well as being aspirational. They have high production values and are artfully put together without being fussy – they are classy. And lastly, their soundtrack is a well known song given a completely different interpretation, usually only a voice and guitar or piano. The adverts are all about reinforcing our trust in the John Lewis brand rather than being overtly sold anything – products do not feature. We are being reassured that spending our money with John Lewis will lead to happiness and satisfaction, the adverts are a hit with the public and commentators alike being a topic for discussion at work or being shared on social media (have you seen the new John Lewis advert?) In fact, the only criticism I have heard in the media about this years advert is that the stuffed penguin soft toys (2014s star)  the chain are selling are low on availability and too highly priced at £95.

See the John Lewis Christmas 2014 advert here:

The Sainsbury’s Christmas advert has caused much more debate however as it depicts the famous football match between British and German soldiers on Christmas day 1914. The reasons given for the subject matter are that Sainsbury’s have long been a supporter of the British Legion and they wanted to mark the centenary of World War I (they are also raising money for the charity as part of the campaign.) The production values are as high as any top end Hollywood film and there is no doubt that the piece is a well put together piece of work. The advert has been accused of cynically exploiting the public mood for remembrance in this centenary year of the beginning of the Great War, currently opinions seem to be stretched between the two opposing poles of for and against and I guess only time will tell if the advert promotes or damages Sainsbury’s as a brand.

See the Sainsbury’s Christmas 2014 advert here:

There seems to me to be a great deal of truth in Althusser’s arguments about the subtle nature of ideology and the fact that I struggle to find overt examples of ideology in modern visual culture demonstrates this. True there are many examples of how the norms of society such as the presentation of beauty and glamour, and concepts of good and evil are presented in a variety of media. In this age of multi channel media outlets it is no longer the case that only one ideology is presented – there are always a great deal of opinions and voices that oppose any particular point of view. And yet despite this, the normalcy of democratic capitalism and the requirement to aspire to more consumer wealth is all pervasive and anything opposing this is seen as deviant.

Notes on Althusser:

Louis Althusser (1918-90) was an Algerian born French Marxist philosopher, regarded by Macey (2000) as “perhaps the most sophisticated of post-war Marxists.” Althusser aimed to revive the revolutionary purpose of Marxism and construct a theory that could make real, practical difference to the world. Although his legacy is uncertain, he succeeded in reworking many of Marx’s key concepts and introduced a degree of intellectual rigour into Marxist philosophy.

Althusser’s education at the prestigious Parisian institution Ecolé Normale Supérieure (ENS) was interrupted in 1939 when he was drafted into the army. He was almost immediately captured by the Germans however and spent the duration of the war as a POW. Resuming his education after the war he became a tutor in 1948 and, although he gained renown his academic career was unconventional and he never held a senior University position. His entire career was spent teaching at ENS and many of his students went on to have influential careers including Foucault and Derrida. Althusser’s physical and mental health was always uncertain and he was hospitalised several times. His goal as an author was to produce a complete reinterpretation of Marx’s theories and establish a theoretical link between Marx and psychoanalysis. Although prolific, he failed to produce a full theoretical account and a substantial corpus of unpublished work was discovered after his death.

Althusser reasoned that the scientific understanding of society could enable a program of change to be implemented. He argued for a ‘return to Marx’, he believed in his ‘mature’ works Marx had founded the science of historical materialism (the general laws of the development of society) however, his work remained incomplete and it was the purpose of contemporary Marxism to continue this. He renovated Marx’s base/superstructure metaphor into the concepts of repressive state apparatus (RSA) and ideological state apparatus (ISA) along with the idea of ideology as interpellation.

Although Althusser was a member of the French Communist Party from the 1950s he was often an isolated and embattled figure within the organisation whose writings appealed to a young audience rather than the party leadership. This can be encapsulated by his disagreement with the party following Khrushkev’s denunciation of Stalin in 1956. Although he was sympathetic to the anti-Stalinist positon he felt this betrayed the revolutionary spirit of Marx and was designed to discredit the heritage of Lenin. His enthusiasm for Mao also went against the FCP’s pro Soviet stance.

Althusser’s stock as a theorist went into decline following the Paris student uprisings of 1968: Althusser was expected to participate and although it was illness that prevented him doing so he was also highly critical. His inadequate responses to China’s cultural revolution and lack of acknowledgement of Solzhenitsyn and the existence of gulags in the USSR also contributed. Despite this, in the 1970s the influential British film studies journal “Screen” championed his thoughts and he became an influence on upcoming theorists Pierre Machery and Terry Eagleton.

In his final years his controversies were personal rather than political: in 1980 he strangled to death his partner of 34 years. Although he was never convicted of murder he was hospitalised for 3 years following this and spent the rest of his life unable to be published.

Key Works: ‘For Marx’ (1969), ‘Reading Capital’ (1965 with Balibar), ‘Lenin and Philosophy’ (1971)


This is by far the most complex project I have undertaken so far, both in terms of scope and complexity of the text. I made the decision at the beginning of this exercise to read as much as I could about the subject – this meant also researching points that were raised in my general reading. My understanding has certainly moved forward, but, I am nowhere near proficient in my knowledge of the subject. A quick search on Amazon for books about ideology brought up scores of titles – it is probably no exaggeration to say that I could have researched for the next year and not read enough!

I found Althusser’s writing style to be complex yet repetitive. It seems to me that he is not concerned about the clarity of his prose for the reader. (I at least felt a little better that the blogs of fellow students I looked at seemed to have the same difficulty with his writing style.) The reproduced essay in Evans and Hall is an extremely truncated version of the full text which was published in ‘Lenin and Philosophy’, reading the full essay helped extend my understanding and the development of Althusser’s arguments seemed more logical. Writing down my thoughts was a struggle as I kept hoping that the next piece of study or rereading of the essay would further my understanding, and although it has to an extent I realise I have not been able to give the full response to the questions I would like. Interestingly, the process of putting finger to keyboard has highlighted to me both strengths and weaknesses in my understanding and this is a technique I will try in the next project to see if I can find my blind spots quicker and then return with to more research to fill them in.

Keywords and concepts for further research:

Ideology, interpellation, hegemony, structuralism, post-structuralism, empirical, imperialism, alienation, bourgeois, proletariat, alienation, the enlightenment, common sense (Gramsci), ideological consensus, ideological struggle, dominant ideoology, ideological state apparatus, repressive state apparatus, false conciousness, class conciousness, end of ideology, epistemology.

Key figures for further research:

 Karl Marx, Frederick Engels (The German Ideoology), Adam Smith (The Wealth of Nations), Morris (workshop based system of production), Antonio Gramsci (Prison Notebooks), Lacan, Satre (bad faith), Geertz, Daniel Bell (end of ideology thesis), George Lukacs, Hegel, Karl Mannheim, Ernesto Laclau, Stuart Hall.


Althusser, L. (2001) Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. New York: Monthly Review Press.

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

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

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

Macey, D. The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory (2000) London: Penguin books p.9

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

Williams, R. (2010) Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. London: Fontana Press.