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Topics In Cultural Studies


Week Three


1. Introduction to Semiotics


2. Myths and Signs

Roland Barthes


3. Contemporary Examples




1. Introduction to Semiotics


Semiotics (or semiology) is the “study of signs”


Several different strands of semiotics usually acknowledge their debt to a 1915 work on linguistics by Ferdinand de Saussure called Course in General Linguistics, which was published posthumously.


Before that C. S Peirce, an American philosopher, had identified three different ways in which a sign can signify something:


Three Sign functions:


Iconic signs resemble what they signify, e.g.




Indexical signs are like sign-posts and point the way to what they signify, like this one:


                                                                Where Are You?



Symbolic signs have an arbitrary—and thus conventional—relation to what they signify, like this:





The symbolic function is best exemplified by the word.  How do the letters C-A T (and the sounds that correspond to them) come to have the meaning they have (the idea of “cat”)?  What is, and where is, the “idea”?  No where in the world.


The word is a two sided entity: it comprises both a sound image (or with writing a visible image) and a meaning. 


These aspects can only be separated in theory but it is worth noting that the same sound/image might at different times signify different meanings or things.


The verbal sign (or word) therefore has two components, a signifier (the sound or visual image) and a signified (what it means at any given moment).  These aspects are mental phenomena: you can see, hear and understand a word silently and with your eyes closed.


For a private exercise, listen silently to the sound of the word “cat.”  What meaning do you get from it?


Once a child has learned a language he or she is capable of making all kinds of references.  But reference is not a crucial part of language use.  All you need is a sound and a meaning.


How do signifiers get their signifieds?  Through a system that connects all the sounds and meanings to each other.


Denotation and Connotation

The language system comprises of words (and bits of words) that add up to particular meanings.  This system is made up of what Barthes calls “denotations.”


But in any community, even the current global one to which we all belong, another order helps to regulate the denotative order: an order of connotation.  Connotation produces a limited number of signifieds, which help to regulate the mass of signs that at any given time surround us.  If we regard this room in terms of signs then they all connote “pedagogic functionality,” and help produce the ideological myth that students are being educated.  (Just because it’s a myth doesn’t mean that it’s not true, of course, but it might not be true either).  Connotations are usually abstractions.  That is why we need abstractions to analyze them and, ultimately, to get our own back on them.  Myths too are abstractions (or at least the mythic part of myth is always an abstraction). 


Connotations are also responsible for stereotypes.  They function through habit and can only be exposed through thinking.   




Iconic signs resemble what they signify.

Indexical signs are like sign-posts and point the way to what they signify.

Symbolic signs have an arbitrary, and thus conventional and regulated, connection with what they signify.


The Verbal Sign is made up of Signifier and Signified.


Signs are made possible by a system, which speakers access unconsciously in order to say what they consciously intend to say.


Denotation connects words and images to meanings; connotation subordinates whole groups of signs to a single idea




There are, therefore, always three ways of looking, listening, or understanding things:


1. According to the signified.  This might appear rather uncritical.  We just take for granted the meaning that a sign evokes.  This feels very natural and we are never troubled on this level.  However, very many things appear obscure to us: words we don’t understand; texts that contain abstract arguments; poems or songs or artworks that do not give way to signified conventional meaning easily.  To read according to the signified is to be the passive recipient of meanings imposed from without while believing that we are masters of our own discourse. 


2. According to the signifier.  To read according to the signifier is to become active and analytic in response to signs.  We are on the lookout for myths, abstractions, and systems.  We no longer believe in the naturalness of the sign and its meanings.  We become critical of the relative truth or falsity of representations.  But it’s not all suspicion.  On this level we also become producers, capable of manipulating signs, altering signifying systems and creating alternatives out of existing material.  We also realize that the arbitrary connection between signifier and signified can be exploited (for pleasure or for profit).  Puns, jokes, advertisements, comedies and art: each in their way exploits the arbitrary and often paradoxical connections between signifiers and signifieds.


3. According to the difference between signified and signifier.  With the third way of looking at things we realize that the signified meaning (which we used to think of as being “inside our heads”) and the signifier that provokes it (which comes to us as if from outside) cannot ever be separated.  The inside (meaning) already is the outside (signs).  So there will never be any position outside the signifying system.  We’re always in the midst of things.  On this level all we have is the gap between meanings we receive and those we create out of them.


Each of the three ways is quite weak on its own.  What Roland Barthes has given to Cultural Studies is a method in which the combination of different approaches to the sign allows a flexible and sophisticated response that can acknowledge every dimension in which signs operate.  The key is to be able to treat each way of looking at a sign as if it was primarily a signifier: a seeable or hearable element with at least a potential significance.  Then the significance it does have can be regarded as an abstraction—potentially a very powerful one.     



2. Myths and Signs

Roland Barthes


Myth and Semiotics

The notion of myth connects to the notions of ideology and hegemony: each is doing similar service and trying to get at the same thing: how culture makes its political and historical constructedness apparent.


Ideology and culture, as kinds of propaganda, work best when they are not recognized as such because they contribute the construction of what people think of as “common sense”


Barthes writes (bear in mind the Singapore lists):


The whole of France is steeped in this anonymous ideology: our press, our cinema, our theatre, our popular literature, our ceremonies, our Justice, our diplomacy, our conversations, our remarks on the weather, the crimes we try, the wedding we are moved by, the cooking we dream of, the clothes we wear, everything, in our everyday life, contributes to the representation that the bourgeoisie makes for itself and for us of the relationships between man and the world.



Example quoted by Hebdige: Paris Match photo of black soldier saluting the flag:





I am at the barber's, and a copy of Paris-Match is offered to me. On the cover, a young Negro in a French uniform is saluting, with his eyes uplifted, probably fixed on a fold of the tricolor. All this is the meaning of the picture. But, whether naively or not, I see very well what it signifies to me: that France is a great Empire, that all her sons, without any colour discrimination, faithfully serve under her flag, and that there is no better answer to the detractors of an alleged colonialism than the zeal shown by this Negro in serving his so-called oppressors. I am therefore again faced with a greater semiological system: there is a signifier, itself already formed with a previous system (a black soldier is giving the French salute); there is a signified (it is here a purposeful mixture of Frenchness and militariness); finally, there is a presence of the signified through the signifier.


There is an Extract from Barthes’s “Myth Today”



Malay Regiment


“The Rhetoric of the Image”


With this essay Roland Barthes helped to establish the critical analysis of images that since then has become widespread.  His essay is justly influential.  That doesn’t mean that everyone automatically agrees with his terms and his statements.  Moreover the influence of images in society and especially in the media has undergone several transformations since Barthes was writing.  Nevertheless, his essay remains good to think with and to help us develop our own critical attitudes to image analysis.


Commentary: the signified (on the level of connotation) Italianicity




The Advert from Panzani (Panzani Website)






Roland Barthes "Rhetoric of the Image"


Rhetoric: Substitution of one signifier for another









from Gk. a and sundeton “bound together with”

Also sp. asindeton

brachiepia, articulus,
dissolutio, dissolutum, dialyton

loose language



The omission of conjunctions between clauses, often resulting in a hurried rhythm or vehement effect.






Three Messages:

1. Linguistic


Pure Iconic Message:

2. Symbolic: a series of discontinuous signs "imbued with euphoric values" (associated with feelings of well being):

A. A return from the market - i freshness - ii domestic preparation

B. (Yellow) - White - Green - Red (Tricolour) – Italianicity


Flag of Italy








C. Culinary Service (the tin is equivalent to the fresh vegetables etc. that are with it in the bag)

D. The Still-Life (nature-morte)





Joris van Son Still Life of Fruit (1663)



3. Literal or "non-coded" (the relationship between the signifier and signified is "quasi-tautological")


Structural Description (page 37)


Linguistic Message: anchorage and relay


Denoted Image

The utopian character of denotation (absence of meaning) the illusory ideal achieved by the photograph (where the relationship between signifier and signified is one of "recording" or "documentary")


"A decisive mutation of informational economies"


"The denoted image naturalizes the symbolic message" (a kind of "being there" of objects).  A pseudo-truth.  So image technology "helps mask the constructed meaning under the appearance of the given meaning" (46).


Rhetoric of the Image

Lexicon (corresponds to a body of practices and techniques): each individual accesses the image differently (47).  The individual's psyche = a mass of signs (their idiolect)


 Rorschach Test 



“The common domain of the signifieds of connotation is ideology

Rhetoric is a set of “signifiers of connotation” or “connotators of ideology” (like Asyndeton and Metonymy).


Two structural functions that correspond to two axes of language:


1. Condensation of symbols in the sets of connotators (paradigmatic axis): the symbolic coding of the signifiers: the meanings Italianicity, still life, culinary preparation, plenty. 


To find the abstract add the suffix icity to an adjective: e.g., Singaporean becomes Singaporeanicity.  


2. Flow of images or signifiers as we find them combined (syntagmatic axis) that naturalizes the discourse (it feels closer to speech, to the here and now of present context): the vegetables and packages and tins in a shopping basket.



Barthes was writing at a revolutionary moment in French history, but the challenge is for us to think myth through today.


3. An Example from Contemporary Singapore


The myth of dominant forms of representation and its anonymity involves disguising or erasing historical conditions.

Example: Beyond the Camouflage image (camouflage does the marking rather than the hiding, so what is being hidden?)


watch the thrill and excitement as Kym drives the Light Strike Vehicle”



camouflage poster





Kym Ng and Ix Shen: their clothing is meant to attract attention but actually serves as a kind of civilian camouflage:


The military as entertainment


The military as fashion


Camouflage draws attention to itself through the act of supposedly diverting attention from itself.


Intimately covert operations separating yet implicating the military in community and the community in the military:


The total defense slogan, “There’s a part for everybody” (economic, military, psychological, civil and social)


Ix Shen is an interesting choice for this role, reminding us that as always beyond the camouflage is a body, as what he is best known for locally is his “tight bod.”  The show has been justly celebrated on one of Singapore’s covert gay chat lines:


“Caught the first episode yesterday. Ix shen looks great. What a nice clean cut bod. Looks good in uniform too. Yesterday was about Guards...motto ready to strike.... The artillery boys are next. I believe it's a 4 episode of 30minutes each. Hope they will also include the Navy n RSAF too. Makes me wish i was in my NS days again.hehe. Well done media works. A feast for uniform lovers too”





On Myth (some notes that recap the structural model of language and dig deeper into the question of Myth with further references to Beyond the Camouflage)


Structuralism and Language





Subverting Subversion


More Useful Websites


From Semiotics for Beginners


Commentary on Ferdinand de Saussure