Assignment 4: Visualising the ‘Other’ through ‘Taxi Driver’

Introduction

In her essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, Laura Mulvey uses examples from films of the 1930s-1950s to illustrate her argument that patriarchal society is reinforced by Hollywood cinema which, geared towards male viewing pleasure in turn relates directly to the construction of the male psyche. The paper is a polemic with the intent of redressing gender imbalance as identified by Mulvey:

“[the essay] takes as its staring point the way film reflects, reveals and even plays on the straight, socially established interpretation of sexual difference which controls images, erotic ways of looking and spectacle.” (Jones, 2010: 57)

Mulvey acknowledges the changing landscape at the time she is writing and anticipates that the “monolithic system based on large capital investment” can be subsumed by an emerging alternative cinema which is becoming possible due to technological advancement:

“The alternative cinema provides a space for the birth of a cinema which is radical in both a political and aesthetic sense and challenges the assumptions of the mainstream film. This is not to reject the latter moralistically, but to highlight the way in which its formal preoccupations reflect the physical obsession of the society which produced it and further, to stress that the alternative cinema must start specifically by reacting against these obsessions and assumptions. A politically and aesthetically avant-garde cinema is now possible, but it can only exist as a counterpoint.” (Jones, 2010:58)

To explore these assertions I have chosen the film Taxi Driver, a first person narrative exploring themes of masculinity, violence and alienation amongst other things. The film was also made around the time that Mulvey wrote her essay and I am interested on whether it confirms or confounds Mulvey’s argument along with how far it can be analysed using the psycohanalytic framework of her paper. Scorsese is also of the new generation of directors that began to emerge in the 1970s that were steeped in the films of the past and referenced earlier works in their films, a key influence being Hitchcock which is most explicitly demonstrated in the use of his long time collaborator Bernard Herrmann for the score to Taxi Driver. Mulvey posits that the gaze in cinema is implicitly male, this is certainly true of Taxi Driver as (virtually) all of the film is presented through the eyes of protagonist Travis Bickle. And yet, although he is a man Travis possesses no power – in fact his masculinity is a prison which traps him in a spiral of loneliness, alienation, self destruction and delusion.

Taxi Driver and authorship

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

Scorsese became synonymous with the ‘movie brat’ generation of directors that came to prominence in the 1970s who had grown up with a love of film and used these as touchstones in their own work. It can be argued that film proved the defining element of Scorsese’s development as frequent childhood illnesses “detached Scorsese from participating fully in the life of the streets but increased his opportunities for observing it.” (Cousins, 2011:339) He gained most of his experience not from directly lived experience but from films.

The main two stylistic influences on Taxi Driver are film noir and the French New Wave showing Scorsese’s bridging of both the avant-garde and mainstream. Tropes from film noir such as first person voice over narration, expressionist camera angles and movements, moody jazz inflected score are all present. Film noir is also rooted in post war trauma, for Taxi Driver this is Vietnam rather than WWII. From New Wave directors such as Godard, Scorsese appropriates some of stylistic innovations such as the jump cut which he uses to emphasise Travis’s psychosis. Early in the film we watch Travis walking toward us on a street, a dissolve makes Travis appear to disappear then reappear in the shot. Usually this type of cut would be used to advance the passage of time in a narrative, here, with Travis only moving slightly closer to the camera, the amount of time that has passed is minimal. The effect is to emphasise early in the film Travis’s fractured state of mind.

While it is not necessary to have knowledge of all of the references that Scorsese employs in Taxi Driver, it could be argued that doing so increases our understanding. Taubin (2010: 37) describes this as “hybrid iconography”, for example the western genre is an influence on Taxi Driver. (The scene detailed above is a reference to the 1952 western Shane) With the theme of masculinity being perhaps the most prevalent in the film referencing this most macho of genres adds further layers to Taxi Driver.  The alienation and lack of purpose that Travis experiences is in contrast to the convention of the western hero who always has a sense of purpose. Like these heroes Travis also strives to bring order to the lawless, hell on earth he experiences around himself, although ambiguity about whether he is on the right course is prevalent.

Taxi Driver and the look

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

Mulvey discusses the notion of the male Gaze in ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ arguing that there is an imbalance in looking that is split between active/male and passive/female. The male is a controlling figure of the film’s narrative and the bearer of the spectators look with whom they can identify. This suggests that power is inherent in the main protagonist, something that Travis is almost completely lacking. For the majority of the film’s running time, Travis is a passive observer of the world around him. His taxi acts as a barrier between himself and the outside world which he views with disdain, a metal coffin on wheels symbolising urban isolation. (Taubin, 2000:10) The view the Travis experiences is literally using his Taxi as a window on the world, a distancing strategy that he combines with viewing his passengers in the rear view mirror. Using the ideology Mulvey presents in her essay, as a white male Travis should possess a great deal of power in society. This is not the case in the film however, Travis has no power, even the blacks seem to have more agency than him. This perhaps goes some way to explaining his rage.

Frequently we are made to share Travis’s viewpoint throughout the film, from the opening sequence which uses stylistic strategies more associated with the horror genre to emphasise Travis’s world view of New York as hell on earth to the infamous ‘you talkin’ to me?’ scene in which Travis practices drawing his gun and how he might react in a violent situation. He does this into the mirror and directly to his reflection, so although we see him on the screen the implication is we are looking directly through his eyes. The most powerful aspect of Taxi Driver is that the film makes us view the world through the eyes of Travis, what we see is twisted by his pathology and yet we also become complicit, gaining empathy for him despite everything we see.

The ‘you talkin’ to me?’ scene is a key way to understand both the film and the character of Travis. Lacan’s notion of the mirror phase is present here – Travis is literally using his reflection to bolster his self image, we have frequently seen him unable to interact with other people on a one to basis, a reality at odds with delusional self narrative he gives us in voiceover. Even here he needs to practice over and over to get his speech right, the camera cutting to edit out his mistakes. Taubin (2000: 22) makes the point that the scene makes it difficult to distinguish between Travis and his reflection, between self and other:

“It is as if Travis implicates us in his paranoid confusion of self and other and of projection and reflection. If we are his mirror, then he is ours.”

In another scene Travis is watching a film in a porn theatre, the camera watches him move his middle finger up and down over his eyes, breaking his field of vision. By deliberately preventing himself from looking at the screen through this gesture he is intensifying his voyeuristic pleasure, repeatedly enforcing and breaking the prohibition against looking.

Travis Bickle and the ‘Other’

“The Other refers to that which is understood as the symbolic opposite of the normative category. The slave is other to the master; the woman other to the man, the black person to the white person…” (Sturken and cartwright, 2009: 451)

Travis’s relationship with the ‘Other’ can perhaps be encompassed by his interactions with everybody else he comes into contact with – he is so completely alienated. The lack of respect that is given to him by the female encounters demonstrates that his maleness in itself does not entitle him to a higher social status. The first woman he encounters is the cinema attendant who quickly shows she is in control by threatening Travis’s mild flirtations with eviction by the manager. Betsy is a professional woman with a good job and higher educational level than Travis, clearly out of his league. Despite this she is intrigued by Travis and agrees to go on a date with him. Taking Betsy to a porn film shows Travis to be both socially inept and wilful in his self loathing – it is like he is desperate to show demonstrate his deviance.  Even Iris, the pre-teen runaway prostitute merely humours Travis and shows a higher level of maturity and awareness of herself and the world in the scene they share in the diner.

Blacks represent the one group that Travis can feel superior to and his blatant racism demonstrates this. Sitting with his fellow cabbies in the all night diner, he can barely conceal his hostility towards the one black man at the table. Travis’s gaze then switches to a group of flamboyantly dressed black pimps on the tables opposite. We see the pimps through his eyes, the camera moves in slow motion towards them emphasising his hatred which seems directed at there very blackness rather than what they do for a business. As he leaves the black cabbie says “see you later killer”, closing one eye and pointing his finger toward Travis as if it is a gun. It is a telling and humiliating moment for Travis where he is mocked, albeit gently, by a black man and also shows that his cabbie colleague has seen the violence inside Travis while foretelling what is to come.

Psychoanalytical readings of Taxi Driver

“it is the birth of the long love affair/despair between image and self-image which has found such intensity of expression in film and such joyous recognition in the cinema audience.” (Jones, 2010: 60)

Since Taxi Driver is clearly both a character study and an examination of personality disorder it is not difficult to apply psychoanalysis to readings of the film. Throughout the difference between the real and imaginary are displayed through the use of voiceover juxtaposed with reality: Travis shows narcissistic tendencies which prove to be unfounded by what we see and how we see others react to him. He craves company and yet is unable to connect with others due to his social awkwardness and through his lack of self awareness transfers this failure onto others. His inability to connect with women for example can be read as a symptom of his inherent identity being under pressure from both feminism and the civil rights movements. Travis’s inner voice has “paranoid delusions of grandeur, contradictory assessments of self and others…pathological narcissism.” (Taubin, 2000: 38)

Travis shows a sexual repression that displays a clear castration anxiety. Despite his frequent visits to the porn theatre there is no suggestion that he is gaining an erotic charge from this, rather, he goes there because this is what he believes he is expected to do as an expression of masculinity. He makes no attempt to consummate his relationship with the two females he comes into contact with throughout the film, although he is deeply confused about what to do. Betsy is the Madonna he wants to turn into a whore by showing her the darkness within him by taking her on a date to the porn theatre, Taubin (2000: 18) sees this as “a violation, a psychological rape.” On the other side, Iris is the pre-teen whore he wants to save.

Travis only begins to gain agency within the narrative when he decides to buy guns in a scene which is blatant both in its fetishism and phallic connotations. Clearly the guns represent Travis’s castration anxiety and serve both as an antidote to this and to exact revenge on those that have made him feel less of a man. Throughout the film Travis is like a bottle under pressure that you know will explode once the top is removed. The final, violent scenes of the film represent Travis’s release, yet he shows himself to still be impotent through his failure to commit suicide at the very end. In a final ironic twist however, Travis is shown as being held up as a hero for rescuing Iris and taking out the gangsters, an action he only took because of his failed assassination attempt on Senator Palantine.

Conclusion

It is difficult to argue that Taxi Driver restores any sort of gender balance as it is difficult to imagine a film that deals with issues of maleness in more detail. The principal creators of the film are all men and there are very few women featured, however, this is hardly a celebration of patriarchy. Travis Bickle is a damaged man, possibly as a result of the war in Vietnam which is a symptom of late capitalism. He is alienated in both the literal and Marxist sense and is unable to find his place in society as either a man or a citizen. Although the film can hardly be held as a positive portrayal of masculinity it seems to be suggesting that the psychosis Travis experiences is a symptom of the society which appears to be breaking down, by extension this leads us to ponder what the alternative would be – something new or a return to what has come before? Taxi Driver is a complex portrayal of an anti hero it is difficult to like and yet manages to get the viewer to empathise with Travis. In the end it shows that texts can have both multiple contradictory meanings and a hateful world view can be expressed without meaning that is shared by the creators. At the end we are left with a feeling of foreboding about what is to come, the final shot of Travis’s eyes in close up, looking into the rear view mirror for something it appears only he can see, echoes a shot in the opening sequence. The suggestion is that the cycle will begin again and there is nothing we can do about it.

Bibliography:

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

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

Freud, S. (1991) On Sexuality: Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality and Other Works. London:  Penguin.

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

Mulvey, L (1975) Visual pleasure and narrative cinema in pps. 57-65  Jones, A. (ed) (2010) The Feminism and Visual Culture Reader (2nd edition). London: Routledge

The Pervert’s Guide To Cinema (2006) Dir: Sophie Fiennes. UK/Austria/Netherlands: Amoeba Film/Kasander Film Company

The Pervert’s Guide To Ideology (2012) Dir: Sophie Fiennes. UK/Ireland: BFI/Blinder Films/Film4

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

Taubin, A. (2000) Taxi driver. London: BFI Publishing.

Taxi Driver (1976) Dir: Martin Scorsese. USA: Columbia Pictures

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

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

 

 

Assignment 3: Decoding Advertisements

Choose a current advertisement or advertising campaign, and, drawing on the work of Barthes and others analyse it to show how it derives and conveys its meaning to its intended audience.

In his essay, ‘The Rhetoric of the Image’, Barthes chooses an advertisement for pasta sauce to analyse because, “in advertising the signification of the image is undoubtedly intentional; the signifieds of the advertising message are formed a priori by certain attributes of the product and these signifieds have to be transmitted as clearly as possible.” (Evans and Hall: 33) Although twenty-first century advertising is on the surface more sophisticated and diverse than Barthes would have recognised, I believe this remains as true now as it was in the 1960s. The simple truth remains: adverts exist solely to sell things. To illustrate this, I have chosen to study the Christmas advertising campaigns of the department store chain John Lewis which have somehow become as much of an indicator of the Christmas season as selection boxes being on sale in the supermarket.

Until 2007, John Lewis did not advertise at all on television, and although the Christmas advert that they put out that year displayed some of the signatures that subsequent campaigns would become known for, it is a pretty conventional piece. The following Christmas however, they began developing tropes that would become their signature style: high production values, a narrative arc strong in seasonal sentimentality, a quirky, stripped down cover version of a familiar song. With the 2011 campaign, ‘The Long Wait’, the adverts had become embedded in the national consciousness and became to be seen as an annual event. (Stone, 2013) With this in mind this is the advert I have chosen to study in depth as it also represents the year that John Lewis stopped directly promoting specific products, or even their own stores and as a tangible shopping experience and instead began tapping into our cultural knowledge and aspirations and linking this with the brand. Despite this seemingly bold move, subsequent Christmas ads have continued in this vein and are credited as making a significant impact to John Lewis sales over the critical seasonal period which is so key to retailers.

The synopsis of ‘The Long Wait’ is as follows: a young boy is impatiently waiting for Christmas to arrive. The passage of time is shown through the use of quick cuts of similar scenes unified by our protagonists frustrated facial expression. We know it is the lead up to Christmas because we see the boy eating chocolate from his advent calendar, looking out of a window with a Christmas tree behind him, and, at one point he is dressed in a Shepherds’ costume apparently having starred in a school nativity play. The imminent arrival of the big day is signified by a family meal during which the boy hurriedly eats before jumping from the table and rushing to his room and climbing into bed, pulling the covers tight up to his neck and squeezing his eyes shut. We see the child waking the next morning, his eyes open and he realises it is the day he has been waiting for – Christmas. He jumps out of bed, but instead of rushing to the stocking that is at the bottom he goes to his cupboard and brings out a present. The wrapping is poor in comparison to the presents at the bottom of his bed – the suggestion being he has wrapped this himself. The camera cuts to the parents’ bedroom, seemingly alerted to the boy’s presence the adults wake bleary eyed – from their point of view we see the boy holding a present in his hands with a broad smile on his face and the caption: “For gifts you can’t wait to give. John Lewis. Instore, online, mobile.”

This reading of the scene is possible through our ability to decode a number of signs in quick succession and relies greatly on our cultural knowledge as well as our understanding of cinematic conventions such as rapid editing and showing the passage of time through subtle changes such as changes in clothing and weather conditions. There is no dialogue with the only soundtrack being a cover version of The Smiths “Please, please, please, let me get what I want”, a song with a melancholy air and a sentiment that leads us to the false belief that the child is driven purely by impatient selfishness about the gifts he will receive. The success of the ad is that our reading turns out to be incorrect – the boy is not selfish at all; in fact, his impatience is based on wanting to give his parents a gift – the gifts he receives himself are secondary to this. This confounding of our expectations not only make the advert memorable but is shamelessly designed to appeal to the viewer – specifically the parents of young children. More importantly however, multiple audiences would be able to identify with the narrative because of the sense of realism that is portrayed and that despite the specifics of the people featured in the advert it is sufficiently general to allow us to recognise the family depicted have a lifestyle that is desirable and values we share.

In ‘Rhetoric of the Image’, Barthes described three messages contained within a text: linguistic, coded iconic and non-coded iconic. The linguistic message is easy to decipher from the text, as it is here in the John Lewis advert, the timing and choice of words are interesting in this instance however. By placing the caption at the end of the advertisement we are more likely to remember that this is an ad for John Lewis, if we have enjoyed the narrative we have been shown then it could be argued we share the ideology being presented and are interpellated by the assertion that giving gifts at Christmas is a way to show our love to those close to us. The non-coded and coded iconic messages are difficult to separate. The non-coded iconic message works on the level of denotation and is partly shown in the synopsis I have given above while the coded iconic message works on the level of connotation and is essential to our ability to understand what is happening. For example, we can learn a great deal about the people being depicted in the advert, and can therefore deduce who the target audience are, by analysing the denoted and connoted signs that are presented. Everything in the advert is carefully chosen to be ‘average’ and ‘normal’ so the viewer can identify with what they are watching: a suburban semi-detached house with a small garden; a nuclear family consisting of a man, woman and two children, all of white race; parents who seem neither too young or old – all indicators of an nice, average, middle class, conventional family. While many adverts appeal through the presentation of aspirational lifestyles, glamorous people, celebrities and exotic locations, the success of ‘The Long Wait’ relies on our ability to identify with what we are seeing as a representation of our own lives.

If we consider ‘The Long Wait’ to be a successful advert then we must also recognise this is because it succeeds on an ideological level, our understanding relying on what Barthes referred to as what “goes without saying” in his essay ‘Myth Today’ (Evans and Hall, 1999: 58) The normalcy of the family unit and the way they celebrate Christmas through the exchange of gifts works on the level of myth: if something goes without saying suggests bourgeois assumptions and the product of history rather than nature. (Howells and Negreiros, 2011: 125) The characters in the advert, particularly the boy, are empty vessels, robbed of their individuality and history: “A signifier is an empty vessel until it is filled with meaning in order to signify. The less specific we are about the signifier therefore, the greater its potential to signify exactly as we wish.” (Howells and Negreiros, 2011: 129) With this in mind what is the message contained within ‘The Long Wait’? I would argue there are multiple readings: John Lewis can be trusted to provide the gifts that your family will love at Christmas and lead to domestic bliss; John Lewis will help transform your selfish brats to loving children who will show their love through the giving of gifts; the way to happiness is through gaining commodities; John Lewis shares your family values and is not interested in the sole, crass pursuit of profit. Another reading of course would be that the advert is nothing more than a ‘spectacle’ as described by Debord, a metaphor for society through which we no longer live life directly and where living has become representation: “The spectacle presents itself as something enormously positive, indisputable and inaccessible. It says nothing more than ‘that which appears is good, that which is good appears.'” (Evans and Hall, 1999: 96) Read through the prism of Debord, ‘The Long Wait’ represents a reified vision of the world with capitalism subsuming us through the fetishisation of commodities. I suspect Barthes too would have much to say against the glorification of capitalism that the advertisement represents, but once a Marxist reading is undertaken this can cloud judgement as strongly as the ideology it purports to be against – maybe it is nothing more than an advert to promote a department store which happens to do this in an entertaining and way while making the viewer remember what is good about Christmas. What is so wrong with that?

Bibliography:

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

Barthes, R. (1977) Image, Music, Text, London: Fontana Press.

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.

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.

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.

Saussure, F. de. (2009) Course in General Linguistics. Memphis: Books LLC.

Sherwin, A. (2014) John Lewis Christmas advert 2014: It’s sickly and sweet but surprisingly potent. The Independent, 6 November 2014 Available at: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/tv/features/john-lewis-christmas-advert-2014-its-sweet-sickly-and-surprisingly-potent-9842404.html [Accessed May 2016]

Stone, J. (2014) John Lewis Christmas ads: How they evolved from 2007 to 2013. The Guardian 6 November 2014 . Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/media/2013/nov/12/john-lewis-christmas-ads-2007-2013 [Accessed on May 2016]

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

Wallop, H. (2014a) It’s funny how John Lewis Christmas advert is now part of our Christmas countdown. The Telegraph, 6 November 2014 Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/newsbysector/retailandconsumer/11212935/Its-funny-how-John-Lewis-Christmas-Advert-is-now-part-of-our-Christmas-countdown.html [Accessed on May 2016]

Wallop, H. (2014b) John Lewis adverts from Christmas past. Available at: https://uk.finance.yahoo.com/news/john-lewis-adverts-christmas-past-173056309.html [Accessed on May 2016]

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

 

 

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.”

And

“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.

Bibliography:

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: https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2015/dec/13/jon-ronson-shame-bullying-twitter-social-media [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: https://www.theguardian.com/media/2015/dec/20/social-media-twitter-online-shame [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:

Red:

passion – as demonstrated in Barthes example of roses

Danger – for example warning signage

Stop – on traffic lights

Socialism – the red flag

Anger – ‘seeing red’

Black:

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.

Thoughts…

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.

Bibliography:

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 http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2006/11/06/a-lost-child [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 http://www.cabinetmagazine.org/issues/40/mavor.php [accessed May 2016]

Siegelbaum, L. (2015) Year of the Stakhanovite. Available at: http://soviethistory.msu.edu/1936-2/year-of-the-stakhanovite/ [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: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/features/still-lives-chris-killips-images-of-northern-working-life-chronicle-and-define-a-bygone-era-7566796.html [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

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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

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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.

Thoughts…

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.

Bibliography:

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