Images play on the habitus of their audience. The fifties brought mass marketing’s ubiquitous use of imagery, spurring on the permeation of everyday life by those who control the image. Of course, this isn’t simply limited to consumption purposes, though particularly in contemporary cultural studies we must be aware of the often-deceptive function that can be both attributed and distributed. It follows that the rationale for exploring the impact of semiotics lies in the attempt to uncover the forces constructing cultural hegemony, demonstrated most obviously in the field by Barthes’ investigation into ‘mythology’. In this essay, I intend to analyse the origins of the approach, assessing the method’s value with the help of scholar theory by demonstrating what it can tell us about culture and hence why we need it. In doing so, I will defend my argument that the semiotic reading remains an extremely valuable method in studying the role of the image in everyday life.
The study of semiotics was borne from exponents such as Ferdinand de Saussure in the late-nineteenth to early-twentieth centuries. Interested in a ‘synchronic’ rather that ‘diachronic’ interpretation of images and symbols, Saussure was concerned with uncovering the uses and hidden motives of that which we are increasingly exposed to (Evans, 2008). Development in the field is influenced in part by Adorno’s investigation into the manipulation of the collective consciousness, demonstrating the cultural reach of the approach. Saussure soon theorised a series of signs identifying the factors involved in implementing the image. This in turn interacts with Bourdieu’s interest in ‘cultural capital’ through the attempt to sell a certain lifestyle or ideology (Swartz, p. 76). Ergo, semiotics draws on pre-existing social theory alongside the developments of later scholars to attempt the comprehensive understanding of a given image.
Saussure posits that concepts exist as signs made of two parts: a mark (otherwise known as a signifier, or denotation), and a concept (otherwise known as the signified, or connotation) (Makaryk, p. 627). Though the relation between signifier and signified is essentially arbitrary and unfixed, these products indicate the collective impact of the image upon culture. Following Saussure’s lead, Roland Barthes goes beyond denotations to provide a third order of meaning – ‘mythologies’ (Robinson, 2011). These mythologies both embody and embed belief systems that often infiltrate our lives almost subliminally, referring to the idea that images can provide a façade for ideological agenda. This may concern instances such as deceptive political propaganda or shows of false-consciousness. Once the ideology is exposed through a semiotic approach, a tripartite process of reading the image (consisting of symbol, alibi, and reinforcement of ideology) exposes pervading beliefs. Therefore, semiotics can inform us about culture by deconstructing images carefully curated to push the agenda of their creator.
A potential criticism of the semiotic analysis is its already-natural existence in today’s culture. The act of critiquing the image is normalised in today’s society of distorted messages, entailing that we must by nature be born critics in order to remain stealthy of mass media’s pseudo-individualisation. However, Barthes’ theory of mythology remains particularly useful in looking deeper into meaning and message. Socially didactic messages touted by its enforcers don’t prevail as easily when we de-familiarise the familiar. Thus, the existence of the approach in academics acts as a placeholder; a reminder to us to be cautious of buying into the agenda hidden by the symbol.
In keeping with the close link between image and hidden meaning, Mannheim points to the way ideology filters the mass of information we perceive daily – it distils complexity, giving rise to a limited world view since both ideology and information are provided by higher powers. Althusser’s ‘ideal reader’ theory builds on this. It posits that all media acts persuasively in some way to catalyse the way people buy into the ideals of its creators, ensuring social structures are reinforced. Semiotics remains as a relevant way of decoding these ideals.
Due to the often-covert nature of the image in everyday life, its significance in everyday life can be apparent in the most mundane of contexts. We can look to the example of the 2014 advert for Oral B’s ‘smart toothpaste’ to demonstrate a basic semiotic reading with use of Saussure and Barthes’ theory (Oral B, 2014). Here, lab coats and supposedly ‘futuristic’ imagery act as signifiers of scientific authority, with the abundance of clean, white surfaces inferring sterility to play on our desire for good healthcare. We move to observing the myth of the educated, familiar celebrity with the entrance of mathematics graduate and television presenter Rachel Riley, which also has implications for Debord’s theory on the role of the celebrity as the ‘spectacular representation of a living human being’ (Debord, 1977). Health is a commodity in the world of advertisement, and the front of the educated, well-spoken white male scientists starring alongside Riley helps to maintain this. From a brief analysis of this advert alone we can see the employment of culturally-bound representations relating to an underlying ideological system. Though the promotion of hegemonic ideals is not as prominent here, it’s worryingly easy to see how we could scale up from a domestic advert to the major infiltration of, say, political ideals. We tap into and thus activate existing expectations of the consumer, passing culture off as nature to assert our agendas. Culler confirms this by framing Barthes’ view on myth as a ‘delusion to be exposed’ (Culler, p. 127), referring not only to the marketing tricks of symbolism, but to the reinforcement of macronarrative agendas such as capitalism. Thus, a semiotic reading of common culture lays bare the social function that can be derived from the attribution of meaning.
Louis Althusser coined the term ‘interpellation’ for the way media ‘recruits’ individuals and ‘transforms’ them into subjects; what they see speaks to them personally by positioning them in opposition to the outsider (Althusser, p. 118). Despite the small-scale nature of the advert, this code is still apparent in its content – corporates enrol in, infiltrate, and adjust social beliefs to sell a lifestyle.
Alongside mass media and marketing, semiotics also provides a valuable tool for other areas of cultural study. Specifically, the process can be applied to the structuralist analysis of power structures, who may use the role of the image in a darker fashion to supress challenge to an enforced hegemonic order. Like the influence of marketing, power-based messages can also ‘sell’ a lifestyle of false security and imposed value systems. Althusser describes ideology as a ‘representation of reality’, supporting this view. He names two ‘apparatuses’: Repressive State Apparatus (RSA), and Ideological State Apparatus (ISA) (Althusser, 2001). The former concerns the perpetuation of dominant ideals through ideological methods, though these often take a backseat in favour of aggression and indoctrination. The latter, more significant in our consideration of the image, is a subtler form of maintaining power and is often achieved through implicit reinforcement of ideas. ISAs propagandise social roles the state assigns us; the image of the student, the worker, the subordinate. These are the means through which we become socialised. Semiotics provides a valuable approach here in dismantling the image we are coerced into assuming, again as a method of disarming oppressive systems.
The pragmatic implications of employing the semiotic approach in the academic world are numerous, but perhaps at its heart lies the rebellious attempt to uncover how the image can impact our collective identity. Our awareness lies at stake of being stolen from us in an act of false-consciousness – thus, semiotics resonates deeply with the protection of our social freedom. Perhaps, as in a Wittgensteinian reading of language games, we can never really exit the field of the image, only play a game of skirting around its influence. However Barthes and his fellow scholars, concerned with stripping back the veneer of the image, provide us a way in which to distance ourselves ideologically. Such a wide reach in the territory of cultural study proves the value of a semiotic approach to the study of culture.