The Importance of Roland Barthes on Cultural Studies

Topics: Semiotics, Thailand, Denotation Pages: 18 (5774 words) Published: August 22, 2013
The importance of Roland Barthes on Cultural Studies, his theory of semiotics and applying it to contemporary images of Northern Thailand.

The Abstract

This report will investigate the importance of Roland Barthes and his relevance to the field of Cultural Studies. It will focus on his theoretical writings about contemporary myths in Mythologies and upon photographic images in Image/Music/Text to understand and interpret contemporary images of Northern Thailand, specifically those of Hill Tribes in the form of postcards and promotional material targeted to a tourist readership. It will analyse the system of signification present in that material and discuss differing interpretations depending upon various levels of reader knowledge.

The Writer, the Text, and the Reader

Barthes extended and developed the field of semiotics, the formal study of symbols and signs, taking inspiration from Saussure’s theory of the linguistic sign as the basis for understanding the structure of social and cultural life (Lechte, 1995: 123-124). His main theoretical argument is that we as innocent consumers / readers are given many signifiers (forms) which ultimately narrow down to one signified (concept) – encouraging one to see culture as unified, which in turn ignores history and actual lived situations.

Barthes focuses on how contemporary myths, or cultural artefacts and events, are all forms of communication, creating a particular meaning through a system of signs. Myths in this sense are messages and as Barthes puts it ‘anything can be a myth as long as it is conveyed by a discourse’ (Barthes, 1972:109).

He was eager to point out however, that the system of myths is different from language as a system of signs in the way that myths are motivated with an intention to persuade the reader. Barthes maintains that contemporary myths are meta-languages, leveraging Saussure’s linguistic system as their foundation. (Barthes 1972: 115).

In Image/Music/Text, Barthes defines three aspects of a ‘message’: the writer, the text, and the reader. These three aspects correspond to what Barthes had defined earlier in “Myth Today” as the producer, the analyser, and the reader. However, as will be demonstrated later in this essay, the readership is complicated by various positions that can be taken up depending upon previous knowledge and/or cultural situation.

1. First there is the Producer of the myths, the ‘writer’ of the text. The Producer creates a certain concept that he fills with chosen signifiers which in turn are repeatedly communicated to his target audience. This careful practice could be seen as a manipulator of the system of signs.

2. Second is the Analyser of myths. The analyser or mythologist understands and examines the distortions created and is able to decode the messages being created by the Producer. In “From Work to Text”, Barthes makes a distinction between the ‘work’ and the ‘text’. The work is the material, tangible expression of the producer. The text, on the other hand, is a field of methodology, the network of meanings created by the analyzer in the activity of creating meaning. As Barthes comments: “the work can be held in the hand, the text is held in language” (Barthes, 1971: 157). The Analyser engages with the text as a signifying system.

3. The last is the Innocent Reader or consumer of the myth. This reader takes what is given and consumes it as a ‘natural’ concept, without question. If this process is successful – if the writer/producer is skilful – this reader becomes the target audience.

Through myths as signifying systems, we are directed by the writer/ producer to accept this constructed reality as ‘natural’, beyond question.  These producers want to elide analytical debate, so that we take what we are being shown at face value.  This then leads to the question of power and what Barthes calls the bourgeoisie ideologies.

Applying Barthes’ theory to images of Northern...

References: Allen, G (2003) Roland Barthes, London: Routledge
Barthes, R (1972) Mythologies, Hill and Wang: New York
Barthes, R (1977) Image Music Text, Hill and Wang: New York
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Hall, S (1992) Culture, media, language: working papers in cultural studies, 1972-79, London: Routledge,
Hitchcock, M, King V, and Parnwell M (1993) “Tourism in South-East Asia: Introduction,” Tourism in South-East Asia, London and New York: Routledge
John Maler Collier (1850 – 1934) Reclining Woman
Kounavudhi, V (1979) The Mountain People, Thailand
Lechte, J (1995) Fifty Key Contemporary Thinkers, London and New York: Routledge
Leepreecha, P (2005) The Politics of Ethnic Tourism in Northern Thailand, Social Research Institute, Chiang Mai University: Chiang Mai
Mai Trung Thu (1906 – 1980) Painting on Silk
McNeil, T (1999) Politics of Mythologies – lecture 2, University of Sunderland:
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Rutnin, J Postcard 2: Resting, Mae Hong Son – A young Padong rests in her home.
Tejavanija, S, Postcard 1: Northern Thailand Akha Hill Tribe
Thai Airway’s in-flight magazine Sawasdee (2004) 99 things not to miss in Thailand: 10...Trek to the tribes, Dubai Media City: Dubai
Thailand Top 20 Hill Tribe Trekking in Northern Thailand (2011)
Williams, C, Anderson, A, (2007) Lonely Planet to Thailand, Lonely Planet: London
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