Examining Roland Barthes’s “Rhetoric of the Image”

Theorist Roland Barthes

French literary theorist, philosopher, critic and semiotician Roland Barthes’s essay, Rhetoric of the Image, is a key text for undergradute students like me who are studying in the arts (or in my case, the fine arts). Having read the piece for three different classes now, I’ve decided to post my thoughts on the article online. As a lot of my followers know, I have used my website in the past to post my own movie reviews, creative writing pieces, photographs, and articles related to crime prevention as well as to the various controversies I helped bring to light that happened at the Kwantlen Student Association. But as I become more focussed on myself and the career I want to pursue in the fine arts, I have made the decision to focuss this site solely on my interest in fine arts, film and creative writing. Other aspects of my life that I still want to have online (maily, my old humour site as well as information regarding the past controversies at Kwantlen) will be transfered to dedicted sites of their own. This posting of my brief examination into Barthes’s essay marks my first serious post related to themes and ideas I am exploring as I work towards finishing my degree in visual arts. I hope you enjoy it!

The title of Roland Barthes’s essay, Rhetoric of the Image, lays down the groundwork for the main argument of his essay, as the word “rhetoric” refers to language that is used to persuade or influence people; and the word “image” refers to a reproduction or imitation of the form of a person or thing. As such, the “rhetoric of the image” simply refers to images used to persuade or influence people. In his essay, Barthes explores a number of important issues, including whether or not images hold meaning given that they exist as representations of something else and whether or not there are limits to the meaning an image can hold. Barthes also uses an analytical system to deconstruct an advertisement for Panzani pasta products in order to explore how images constitute a language and how an image can be read for a variety of literal and symbolic meanings as created in those images. Barthes chooses to deconstruct an advertisement because of the fact that by its very nature, an advertisement is designed to sell something through a very precise, clearly defined, constructed and understandable manner.

Barthes's examined image: an advertisement for Panzani

Panzani itself is a large scale production company that originated in Europe, making pasta products since the 1940s. Today, Panzani sells its products in more than fifty countries including Canada. When one visits the Canadian website for the company today ( http://www.giovannipanzani.ca ), they come across an advertising package that is still very much reminiscent and reflective of the messages Barthes described when he wrote Rhetoric of the Image. Specifically, Barthes argues that the linguistic message serves two functions, firstly, to act as an “anchor” and secondly, to relay information. This is apparent in the advertisement where the denoted message is based on the text in the advertisement (the caption and labels); and the connoted message based on the word “Panzani” which connotes “Italianicity.” Barthes also states that the literal message, or the denoted image (which, Barthes argues, in its purest form is not possible but people still recognize the analogic relationship between the photographic image and the real world) exists without a code (non-coded) through the placement of tomatoes, which represents tomatoes and through peppers, which represent peppers, etc. Finally, Barthes explores the symbolic message, or connoted image, which serves to strike at the heart of the article as these act together to form the “rhetoric of the image.” Specifically, this is apparent in the advertisement where the white sack signifies the return from the market; the tomatoes, onions and pepper signify freshness; while the composition and colours of the Panzani product packaging signifies Italianicity; and the entire collection of all the objects signifies a total culinary service; and the overall composition signifies the idea of a still life.

Overall, the way Barthes deconstructs the image is a useful exercise, one that an artist or other interested party could attempt to do on their own with other advertisements or images; as developing an understanding of how images can be constructed and given meaning is not only a useful tool for those making art, but it is also a useful tool for those who are criticizing or critiquing images as well as for the layman who wishes a deeper understanding of how images in society can encourage or entice him into taking some sort of action (such as buying pasta). By contrast, one wonders if the level of analysis Barthes uses to analyze advertisements be applied to artistic images or to images shot by non-professional everyday people (such photos taken by family members on vacation or during the holidays; or photos taken by people at a rock concert; etc.)? Certainly, the images created by artists may be as carefully crafted as those crafted by individuals creating images in advertising; however, there are times when artistic images are created “accidentally,” with no forethought or intention for any one particular end (or message). Nonetheless, those images would likely still end up holding meaning, even if that meaning was not originally intended, or if the meaning was stumbled upon during or after the completion of the creative process.

Furthermore, Barthes does not closely examine the question that exists in advertising in regards to the possible effect of cross-cultural connotation. While he does note that he was considering how the Panzani advertisement operated in France and noted that it wouldn’t operate in the same manner in Italy he doesn’t address how the advertisement might work in say North or South America. Of course, Barthes died in 1980, and did most of his writing in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, when the world was a lot smaller. There was no internet, more than half the world stood behind an “iron curtain,” and it was not as easy to travel around the world and share information as it is today. As such, images (and more specifically, advertisements) created during this time were likely for a western audience. Had Barthes been writing today, there is little doubt that he would have likely revised his ideas with consideration to how images appeal or read across cultural boundaries.

Finally, the essay is written in fairly dense academic language that can be difficult to get into, read and grasp. For example, at the start of the essay, Barthes argues how:

According to an ancient etymology, the word image should be linked to the root imitari. Thus we find ourselves immediately at the heart of the most important problem facing the semiology of images: can analogical representation (the “copy”) produce true systems of signs and not merely simple agglutinations of symbols?

But with dense, academic language like this, a reader may have had to work to define certain words in order to understand those words and sentences in context with the overall essay.

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