. An A to Z of Theory Roland Barthes and Semiotics | Ceasefire Magazine

An A to Z of Theory Roland Barthes and Semiotics

Roland Barthes was one of the major theorists of culture of the twentieth century. In the first of a six-essay series, political theorist Andrew Robinson presents the French author's approach to semiotics.

In Theory, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Friday, September 23, 2011 12:57 - 22 Comments

By Andrew Robinson

Roland Barthes was one of the earliest structuralist or poststructuralist theorists of culture. His work pioneered ideas of structure and signification which have come to underpin cultural studies and critical theory today. He was also an early instance of marginal criticism. Barthes was always an outsider, and articulated a view of the critic as a voice from the margins. He was an outsider in three ways: he was gay, he was Protestant in a Catholic culture, and he was an outsider in relation to French academic establishment. By the end of his life, however, he was widely renowned both in France and beyond.

Barthes and Semiotics

Barthes is one of the leading theorists of semiotics, the study of signs. He is often considered a structuralist, following the approach of Saussure, but sometimes as a poststructuralist.

A sign, in this context, refers to something which conveys meaning – for example, a written or spoken word, a symbol or a myth. As with many semioticists, one of Barthes’s main themes was the importance of avoiding the confusion of culture with nature, or the naturalisation of social phenomena. Another important theme is the importance in being careful how we use words and other signs.

One characteristic of Barthes’s style is that he frequently uses a lot of words to explain a few. He provides detailed analyses of short texts, passages and single images so as to explore how they work.

Another trait of his work is his constant systematisation. He draws up schemes for categorising the signs and codes with which he works, which can be applied to divide a text, a narrative or a myth into different parts with different functions. He draws up something like a blueprint of the areas of discourse he studies, showing how the different parts hold together.

In Saussurean analysis, which Barthes largely uses, the distinction between signifier and signified is crucial. The signifier is the image used to stand for something else, while the signified is what it stands for (a real thing or, in a stricter reading, a sense-impression).

The signified sometimes has an existence outside language and social construction, but the signifier does not. Further, the relationship between the two is ultimately arbitrary. There are many different ways a particular signified could be expressed in language, or different objects divided-up. None of these ways is ultimately superior to the others.

Barthes is an anti-essentialist. He is strongly opposed to the view that there is anything contained in a particular signifier which makes it naturally correspond to a particular signified. There’s no essence of particular groups of people (humanity, Britishness) or objects (chairness, appleness) which unifies them into a category or separates them from others.

For instance, there is no such thing as human nature. (This might be taken to mean that everything ultimately exists in an immanent, extensive plane of being). The division into categories is always a process of social construction. People don’t start off with thoughts or perceptions of objects which they then express in language. The categories of language determine how people divide up objects into types.

Furthermore, all signs depend on the entire system of signs. None of them have meaning aside from the system.

Barthes is best-known for showing the social constructedness of language by reference to familiar, everyday experiences.

However, he does not mechanically apply Saussure’s theory. He largely replaces Saussure’s term ‘arbitrary’ with the term ‘motivated’. The relationship between a signifier and a signified is arbitrary only from the point of view of language. From a social point of view, it channels particular interests or desires. It can be explained by reference to the society in which signs operate, and the place of the signs within them. Nothing is really meaningless. Signs are neither irrational nor natural.

Signs are taken to operate on a continuum, from ‘iconic’ with one strong meaning to users, through ‘motivated’, to the truly ‘arbitrary’. They vary along this continuum as to how tightly defined they are. Most signs have strong enough connotations and associations to be at least partly ‘motivated’. When they are used, they refer back to previous conventional uses.

For Barthes, most signs are mediated by language. Barthes usually reads non-linguistic signs (such as fashion) through linguistic signs (such as fashion journalism). He views non-linguistic signs as carrying linguistic meanings.

Indeed, in Barthes’s later work, even actions become mediated by language. Every act is at once an act (signified) and a sign of itself (signifier). It becomes hard to unpack the act from its meaning. For instance, in psychoanalysis, it’s argued that a person might kill or steal to confirm in the eyes of others her or his own sense of being a guilty person. The guilty act is a means to provide a sign of itself.

Barthes believes it is impossible to act (e.g. to dress) ‘innocently’ (in the sense of not conveying anything in terms of meaning). Signs of deviance from dominant norms – punk dress for example, or an archaic religious look – are just as conventional as those of the mainstream. They signify rejection of dominant norms and attachment to particular alternatives.

Signs are often used to differentiate one person or group from others. Taboos, for instance, can create a freedom to reject dominant norms by breaking them. Barthes assumes that acts of signifying are usually ‘guilty’: the image they project is intended.

Furthermore, the way people use language bears little relationship to underlying intent, feelings or perceptions. Beneath each text (whether it’s a novel or a speech-act) is simply the immense structure of the language-system, from which each person borrows words in a ceaseless act of writing.

There are also, however, special cases where meanings are violently projected from outside, as in the Dominici case (see below).

The main disagreement here is with the view of language as something akin to mathematical symbols designating particular objects. This kind of reference is one of the roles of language, known as denotation. However, language-use also tends to be affected by a second type of use, known as connotation. Mistaking connotations for denotations is one of the things which makes conventional uses seem natural.

Barthes opposes the view of arts such as literature as operating in this way. He also opposes the view of language as primarily instrumental – as a way of rationally understanding experience. Instead, language exists to produce sensuality, or sensory responses.

Barthes also disagrees with the view that people first form integrated sense-perceptions or thoughts to which they then give names through language. In common with other structuralists, he sees linguistic categories as constituting the divisions of phenomena into groups.

Barthes’s work is marked by a certain recurring concern for the closure which results from linguistic ways of seeing. Language always implies a one-sided way of seeing, which selects certain characteristics as meaningful, and ignores or discards others. This ‘intellectual imperialism’ or ‘fascism’ is built into the nature of language. Every statement prevents something else from being said. This exclusion is unavoidable.

Furthermore, once said or written, something is unchangeable. It creates a system. It cannot be undone. It can only be questioned. This goes against the openness of language. Derrida is later to suggest it is a kind of violence against the multitude of possible meanings.

Human freedom can be asserted against the nature of language in two ways. Firstly, by calling language into question. This is done by literature and semiotics. Secondly, by opening texts to new readings, and preventing them from being finalised. This is done through ‘writerly reading’, and through forms of writing which escape its restriction to communication, using signs for their own sake.

Part two of the series on Barthes is published next week.

Andrew Robinson is a political theorist and activist based in the UK. His book Power, Resistance and Conflict in the Contemporary World: Social Movements, Networks and Hierarchies (co-authored with Athina Karatzogianni) was published in Sep 2009 by Routledge. His ‘In Theory’ column appears every other Friday.


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sahir airam
Apr 9, 2012 16:52

it has been very useful to me…hope to see some stuff on derrida and post modernism…

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Yes, Derrida will be with us shortly, after Baudrillard, Badiou and a few others 🙂

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Lucid and clearly presented with great reticence. Eagerly waiting for the next instalment

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I am truly illuminated by this standard of making sense of things from a different perspective to the norms.

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Jul 6, 2016 16:11

Very helpful articles on Barthes. The abstract language of postmodernism may reflect a need to build scaffolding, make a place to stand for leverage. I hope it’s better than the systems and places to stand that they want to debunk or dismantle.

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Michael Freed
Mar 9, 2020 20:55

In its way, it’s an extension of Nietzsche’s “God is dead.” N warned us that by thinking this, our need to have SOMETHING to hold up as a Great Force For Good (GFFG) that looks out for us, humans & their institutions were now free to fill in this gap. & we’re STILL IN DENIAL of this.
I’ll try this: if an oil company knocked door to door seeking signatures on a petition to get the “right” to build pipelines, what do we think would happen? a) They would get enough signatures (ink on paper)? or b) they would get more refusals (perhaps flying lead)?
We KNOW the answer.
The problem is that “our governments” speak on their behalf, tell us that ALL industrial polluting is somehow “economically necessary.”
Again, if an oil company exec or Monsanto rep said this, we’d likely lynch them. We worship what we see as “our government” as that GFFG & we do not QUESTION “our” GFFG.

Jan 9, 2022 20:57

Holy smokes Michael Freed. Well said! Happy to stumble across this little neck of the woods on the internet here. I’ve been reading Milan’s The Art of the Novel and thought to return to Barthes’ Pleasure of the Text, all in the name of seeing if I want to be a writer. It might be fun to write a novel. And it’s certainly an extremely fun process by the looks of it to do it in the style of Barthes, where “language exists to produce sensuality, or sensory responses.

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