a commonplace book
All images are ‘polysemous’–they can be read in a number of ways. … The text [accompanying an image, say in an ad,] directs the reader as to which meanings of the image to receive. [Roland] Barthes thus suggests that texts have a repressive value to images: they limit what can be seen. It is in this limitation that ideology and morality function. Ideology chooses among multiple meanings which ones can be seen, and limits the shifting flow of signification which would otherwise happen.
Andrew Robinson, “Roland Barthes: Death of the Author,” Ceasefire Magazine, Oct. 14, 2011
This on Roland Barthes’ literary theory.
The discussion of polysemy is part of a larger series of ideas involved in semiotics, the study of how meaning is constructed socially. Barthes’ example–and the one Robinson is discussing–is the following advertisement:
Here’s Robinson’s treatment of it after Barthes:
Firstly, there’s a linguistic message, which has the usual denoted and connoted levels. Secondly, there’s a connotation, established by juxtaposition, associating the brand with freshness and home cooking. Thirdly, there’s the use of colours and fruits to signify ‘Italianicity’, the mythical essence of Italy. Fourthly, the processed product is presented as if equivalent to the surrounding unprocessed items. These signifiers carry ‘euphoric values’ connected to particular myths.
This sort of analysis is exciting because it opens up any and all cultural texts to interpretation as signs. This philosophy understands the world around us to be to a large extent mediated, and if mediated then signified, and if signified, then interpretable; but interpretation is understood under semiotics to be a matter of decoding arbitrary, differential meanings that belie things not seen on the surface. Someone might see nothing beyond the dominant signified in the advertisement above (“Panzani products are authentically Italian”). But Barthian analysis looks at what choices were made in its composition as opposed to others, what those choices mean in terms of greater cultural codes, and what their combined effect is on the reader, among other things. The interesting thing about Robinson’s first passage is the fact of ideology’s role in establishing dominant signifieds in cultural texts.