Roland Barthes and the Coding of Discourse


The Codes


Roland Barthes’s S/Z, which purports to be an exhaustive structuralist reading of Balzac’s Short story “Sarrasine,” in fact is a classic of what today we understand by post-structuralism, in its relentless exposure of the structuration of the structures of the realist narrative.  The following is an outline of the so called “five codes” he uses to analyse the different dimensions of realism (the five codes may be in analogy with the five senses through which the world comes naturally to our perception thus mocking the naturalist pretensions of the highly structured realist narrative).  Further discussion of Barthes, if you are interested, is welcome. 


Any discussion of codes in discourse could justify a reference point in Jakobson’s Communication Model.  The combination of codes and their functions provides a positive attempt to establish discursive constraints that make communication both possible and meaningful.  The following are the codes identified by Roland Barthes in his breakthrough Post-Structuralist text, S/Z.

1. Proairetic code (the voice of empirics): The code of actions. Any action initiated must be completed. The cumulative actions constitute the plot events of the text.

2. Hermeneutic code (the voice of truth): The code of enigmas or puzzles.

3. Connotative [or Semic] code (the voice of the person): The accumulation of connotations. Semes, sequential thoughts, traits and actions constitute character. “The proper noun surrounded by connotations.”

4. Cultural or referential code (the voice of science [or knowledge]):  Though all codes are cultural we reserve this designation for the storehouse of knowledge we use in interpreting everyday experience.

5. Symbolic code (voice of the symbol): Binary oppositions or themes. The inscription into the text of the antithesis central to the organization of the cultural code.

The codes are complicated by partial delays and interruptions.

1. Thematization: emphasis on object which will be subject of the enigma.

2. Proposal of enigma: questions in the text.

3.Formulation of enigma: frequent supplementation of the enigma as the text progresses.

4. Request for an answer: facilitates narrative movement.

5. Snare: types of deception

a) deception of one character by another.

b) deception of the reader by the discourse.

c) character deceived by self.

6. Snare and truth: A statement which might be taken two different ways.

7. Suspended answers.

8. Partial answers.

9. Jamming. An apparent failure of the hermeneutic activity, usually because of the exhaustion of all available resources. Death of writer, destruction of evidence.

10. Disclosure: a discussion or uttering of the irreversible word, closure, the end of signification.


Barthes’ own descriptions from S/Z may help to illuminate what he’s looking for:

Hermeneutic code: “all those units whose function it is to articulate in various ways a question, its response, and the variety of chance events which can either formulate the question or delay its answer; or even, constitute an enigma and lead to its solution” (17).

Semic code: “the unit of the signifier” which creates or suggests “connotation” (17).

Symbolic code: “lays the groundwork” for a “symbolic structure” (17).

Proairetic code: “the code of actions and behavior” (18).

Reference code: “the knowledge or wisdom to which the text continually refers” (18); “references to a science or a body of knowledge” (20). (Barthes also calls this the “cultural code.”)

It should be apparent why one of the most common responses to these five codes is to paraphrase them in a way that is more concrete and precise. A “better” grasp of the codes can be established by examining Barthes’ applications and further discussions of them, however. One example of Barthes’ designation of each code will suffice to illustrate this final point:

Hermeneutic code: “The title raises a question: What is Sarrasine? A noun? A name? A thing? A man? A woman?” (17).

Semic code: The title “has an additional connotation, that of femininity, which will be obvious to any French-speaking person, since that language automatically takes the final ‘e’ as a specifically feminine linguistic property, particularly in the case of a proper name whose masculine form (Sarrazin) exists in French onomastics” (17).

Symbolic code: Barthes quotes the lines recounting the engrossment of the narrator’s companion in the painting of Adonis when she learns the model for it was a relative of Mme de Lanty. The narrator feels spurned: “I had the pain of seeing her rapt in the contemplation of this figure...Forgotten for a painting!” This evokes the symbolic code, Barthes concludes: “Marriage of the castrato (here, the union of the young woman and the castrato is euphorized: we know that the symbolic configuration is not subject to a diegetic development: what has exploded catastrophically can return peacefully united)” (78).

Proairetic code: Barthes quotes “Sarrasine”-”‘To be loved by her [Zambinella], or to die!’ Such was the decree Sarrasine passed upon himself”-and “decodes” this as the following action: “‘To decide’”—“to propose an alternative” (117).

Reference code: Sarrasine discovers the truth about Zambinella after referring to him as a “she” while talking with the Roman Prince Chigi. “‘Where are you from?’“, the Prince asks him. “‘Has there ever been a woman on the Roman stage? And don’t you know about the creatures who sing female roles in the Papal States?’“ This evokes the reference code, Barthes asserts: “History of music in the Papal States” (184).

A lot of useful stuff on codes in semiotics, and on Barthes’ use of codes in particular, can be found at the following websites:


The Great Code by Scott Simpkins

Codes by Daniel Chandler (Chandler’s site is part of his Semiotics for Beginners, which will give you a solid grounding in the whole field)


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