In this essay, Barthes attempts to "submit...the image to a spectral analysis of the messages it may contain" (33) by turning to the advertising image, an image which, he argues, draws from "signs [that] are full, formed with a view to the optimum reading"(33), and which therefore is more "frank" and explicit in the information it conveys. Barthes wishes to use this clarity to move toward a clearer conception of how the image (and its linguistic attendants) produces signification. He turns to a particular advertising image, one in which a mesh grocery bag lies on the table; its contents: beautiful, fresh vegetables and a box of pasta displaying a brand name. This image is designed to incite us to buy the pasta and it attempts to do this by signifying on several levels information that will provoke desire. Barthes proceeds by breaking this system of signification into three parts, that of the linguistic message, the coded iconic message, and the noncoded iconic message. The linguistic message--the Italian name that appears on the package of pasta--itself operates on two levels: denotational, or pointing directly to the name of the company, and connotational, by signifying what Barthes refers to as "Italianicity." The coded iconic message is the totality of all of the messages that are connoted by the image itself: those of freshness, of plenty, of Italianicity (in the yellow, green, and red of the tomato and peppers), and of a certain still-life aesthetics. The noncoded iconic message is simply the literal "what it is" of the photograph, the vegetables and sack and pasta that we "see" when we look at the image. After articulating the three levels of signification, Barthes pursues another question: "What are the functions of the linguistic message with regard to the (twofold) iconic message?" (38); and he comes up with two such functions: anchorage and relay. With anchorage, "the text directs the reader through the signifieds of the image...remote-control[ing] him towards a meaning chosen in advance" (39-40, italics in text). In a system of relay, "text...and image stand in a complementary relationship...and the unity of the message is realized at [the] level of the story, the anecdote, the diegesis" (41). Most systems are actually a combination of anchorage and relay and "the dominance of the one or the other is of consequence for the general economy of a work" (41). In addition to these modes of analysis, Barthes argues that attention must be paid to the composition of an image as a signifying complex and to the naturalizing role played in photography, where the exact replication of reality "naturalizes the symbolic message...innocent[ing] the semantic artifice of connotation" (45). (Laurie Dickinson.)

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Michael Hancher

Department of English, University of Minnesota


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Created 21 May 1995

Last revised 17 September 1996