Barthes, Roland. "The Rhetoric of the Image." Image, Music, Text. Ed. and trans. Stephen Heath.
New York: Hill and Wang, 1977. 32-51.
This essay is seminal in Barthes’ semiotic analysis of images that persuade and communicate appeals via sign systems and how they go about doing so. He opens up the dialogue by being one of the first to ask if an image can stand alone as a linguistic/rhetorical area of study. Barthes asserts the question to those in the field of traditional rhetoric and linguistics if an image can, in fact, communicate meaning in the same manner as language if we apply similar linguistic methodologies to them. He asks quite clearly “How does meaning get into an image? Where does it end? And if it ends, what is there beyond? (32)?”
Through applied structural analysis, Barthes locates three “messages” contained in the image, with the aid of a graphic sample from advertising. They are the symbolic (connotation – the message as modified by society – rose=passion/love), the literal (denotation – the literal meaning of the sign – rose=flower) and the linguistic (the interplay between connotation and denotation). Barthes parses through those messages to find the relationship of anchorage and relay, wherein text helps to “anchor” the meaning of images as “read”, and the image is reinforces to communicate the relayed meaning. He also reveals the denoted image that relies on connotation for meaning making. Meaning is constructed by the producer of the image as well as by the viewer/consumer, who brings their own visual lexicon and sign systems to bare on understanding and what is communicated.
Barthes seeks to reveal the constructed character of meaning that is not just an aesthetic/linguistic critique but also social, positing visual rhetoric clearly in the historical crosswalk of English, Communications, and Culture Studies. Connotation, for Barthes, is therein challenging to classify in that regard because we only have words to unlace images. And yet the “connotators” produce the “rhetoric of the image”. Visual media are not so much concrete and objective as they are more or less in a constant state of construction via semiotic processes of encoding and decoding (45-46). We are less interested in the relationship to the real object than to the significance of the relationship of image to assigned social and personal meaning.
He wonders through the many different forms that images take – photography, cinema, advertising, etc. – to conclude, “The image is penetrated through and through by the system of meaning, in exactly the same way as man is articulated to the very depths of his being in distinct languages (47).” This work sets a precedent to create a field of visual rhetoric, that reads and critiques the image not as something “withdrawn into a few discontinuous symbols which men ‘decline’ in the shelter of their living speech (51);" Barthes seeks to have the image included in the lexicon of study and into the formal structure of meaning making.