Wrestling is all about using signs; the
signs have no actual content
The meanings of the signs of anger,
pain, vengeance, triumph in wrestling
are all based on conventions: they are
not what the wrestlers really feel but
rely on the spectators’ understanding
of human emotions.
The wrestlers’ gestures seem to be
natural, but they are only able to
communicate because they are part of
a socially determined ‘structure’ (a
‘language’). These signs are arbitrary
(i.e. ‘motivated’, or the opposite of
‘natural’). They are part of an elaborate
code, where meanings rely on
differences (like the colours of the traffic
The ‘suspension of disbelief’: when we
watch a film, we all know it is only a
performance, and still we may weep.
Abbé Pierre’s ‘dishonesty’: his
haircut and beard pretend to be
‘natural’, but actually they are
highly artificial (a conventional set
of signs)
We are always conscious of the effect
that the way we dress has on other
people: but we try to pretend that it is
natural and spontaneous. We dress
the way we want other people to see
We are responsible for the conscious
choices we make
The working-class audience at the
all-in wrestling match is honest to
itself (unlike the middle-class
theatre goer): the former know
wrestling is a performance and they
appreciate it as such.
Barthes’ critique of (French)
bourgeois ideology
‘La langue est une forme
et non une substance’
Substance: the
undifferentiated raw
material out of which
language is constructed
The sound waves of
The marks of writing
Meaning (in the sense of
the conceptual store of
thoughts, feelings, etc.
which exist
independently of
Form: the abstract pattern
of relationships (‘la
langue’) imposed on
substance by a language
Semiology is a science of ‘forms’: it
studies significations independently
of their contents (contentless forms)
Mythology: it is part of semiology
(a science of forms) and of
ideology (a historical science)
The contents of ‘myths’ are not
the domain of semiology but
of ideology
 The connotations of a sign are
‘ideological’: they have content
 The semiologist sees
connotations as what they are,
namely ‘myths’
 The semiologist is only
interested in signs as ‘forms’,
just as the Saussurean linguist is
only interested in forms (i.e. ‘la
langue’): the timeless
dimension of signs
 Structural semiology can
expose the hypocrisies of
bourgeois discourse
First semiolgical system (denotation – ‘noncoded’ iconic message): The denotative sign is
made up of a signifier and a signified:
Second semiological system (connotation –
‘coded’ iconic message): The denotative sign
is also a connotative signifier (which has a
connotative signified):
‘a young black soldier in a French uniform is
saluting, with his eyes uplifted, probably fixed
on a fold of the tricolour’ (this sign is a
‘substance’ – it pertains to parole)
To a member of French society it signifies ‘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 young
black soldier in serving his so-called oppressors’
(that’s an idea, a ‘substance’ – it has content)
As a semiotician, who is interested in ‘forms’
or abstractions (not in contents), Barthes is
able to see through the connotative sign as a
‘myth’, i.e. he is able to see that the
connotation is a ‘class construct’ (of the
French bourgeoisie) being passed off as a
natural sign (but actually it just functions as a
means to justify their bourgeois values)
The process of connotation is ‘natural’ (although
it is not; it is ‘coded’) and immediate when it is
experienced: actually it is hard to separate
denotation from connotation.
Barthes sees semiology as part of linguistics
(while Saussure viewed linguistics as part
of semiology)
‘No visual signs are altogether nonlinguistic’ (‘the terror of uncertain signs’)
 Text captions ‘anchor’ the meaning of
an image, or they make it move
forward, a ‘relay’ (in comics, cartoons,
 when we see a wordless cartoon, and
laugh out spontaneously, the sketch
can only be meaningful if provided
with some kind of sotto voce verbal
commentary on our part
The ‘languages’ of cinema, of photography,
of painting, of cooking…
 ‘Le colt est langage’ (Mounin 1968)
Every ‘serious’ semiological system has the
capacity for generating its own forms of
discourse (discours): that’s the domain of
‘ideology’ as having historical content
 (Traffic light system does not qualify,
for Barthes, as a ‘serious’ semiological
Derrida about Saussure:
Saussure: ‘Language and writing
are two distinct systems of signs;
the second exists for the sole
purpose of representing the
Saussure privileges speech over
writing. According to Derrida,
he gives the impression that the
spoken signifier is somehow
closer to the signified (meaning
lies in the spoken ‘form’, i.e. in
Saussure presents a ‘scenario of
purity’: the spoken sign (which
contains the signified) is invaded
by the contaminating force of
mediation (writing as a medium)
Derrida: the spoken form is not
‘pure’: it is contaminated; this
contamination is made visible by
writing (cf. difference vs.
Derrida rejects the Saussurean notion of a stable
concept which the signifier designates: ‘the
transcendental signified is an impossibility’.
There is no ultimate meaning in words (e.g.
‘God’, ‘natural law’).
Saussure: meaning is made possible within the
system because of ‘difference’ (the paradigmatic
relations between signs, i.e. relations in absentia)
Derrida: but how can I know anything about the
paradigmatic relations of the French word
pronounced as ‘différence’ if I don’t know what
other words I could substitute it for ?
I don’t know it because, when spoken, French
‘différence’ could be two distinct words (which just
happen to be pronounced in the same way) meaning
‘difference’ and ‘deferment’, respectively.
Derrida: Meaning, therefore, is constantly
‘deferred’ until later because the value of a sign is
not immediately present; its value is ‘deferred’
until the next sign in the syntagm ‘modifies’ it,
and so on.
‘Ten green bottles standing on a wall’: does not the
syntagm ‘ten green bottles’ contain the trace of the
‘wall’ which follows ? The trace is neither simply
present nor absent. It is an undecidable.
The song ‘ten green bottles standing on a wall’, as it
is being sung right now, bears the traces of all the
other previous renditions of this song, and all the
future ones as well.
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