Lecture 2: Denotation, Connotation and Myth

Denotation and Connotation

  • All images have two levels of meaning
  • Roland Barthes describes them as denotative and connotative
  • Denotative: Denotation tends to be described as the definitional, ‘literal’, ‘obvious’ or commonsense meaning of a sign. It is relatively self-contained
  • Connotative: The term connotation is used to refer to cultural, and historical, and personal association of the sign allowing us to expand application of signs creatively. Codes ti which have access are also used in connotation
  • Order of Signification: Denotative combined with signifier and signified                                                       
  • 2nd Order of signification: Connotative: Cultural values associated with the sign

Maryln Menroe Picture (Example)

  • Denotative / Signifier: A blonde woman wearing black dress. She is wearing a necklace. She is wearing makeup. Her eyes are dimmed. She has a mark on her face. There is cleavage showing. Open mouth
  • Denotative / Signified: This is Maryln Menroe OR this is a women
  • 2nd Order of Signification: She has drug overdosed. She has a sexy pose. She is a government agent. She exemplifies glamour with her star quality. Fail marriage with Arthur Miller
  • Myth: Hollywood tragedy of seeking fame and fortune, but celebrities’ life unravels, and goes downward
  • Interpretations of images are constrained by our culture of knowledge
  • Roland Barthes denotation and connotation combine to produce myths / ideologies of our time. These are shared set of values and beliefs that exist within a given society and through which we live our lives
  • In the third (mythological or ideological) Order of Signification the sign reflects major culturally variable concepts supporting a particular worldview such as masculinity, femininity, freedom, individualism, objectivism and Englishness
  • Myth transforms history into nature. These ideologies become natural to us.  They tend to change overtime, but they hold our society together

Media and the Mediated World

  • A mediated meaning is a signifier that has been recycled by the media
  • The emergence and diffusion of the electronic mass media in the 20th century has also changed the court of history and has also facilitated distance communication, and brought about a global form of culture. This is generally known as pop culture
  • Binary Oppositions: We oppose one against the other cultural values. It helps us organize our knowledge. In binary opposition, one is always perceived as being dominant (Ex. Binary opposition of men and women. Binary oppositions is displayed in media representations such as advertisements and movies) 
  • Juvenilization: As people were able to have more time to do other things in the 20th century, people started to focus and take care of themselves because responsibility for shores and duty started to lessen. The idea of being young has emerged due to media
  • Neomania: The constant craving of the ‘new’ and the news. People want the latest technology, clothes, fashion etc. This is because of the rise of popular culture

The Photographic Message / The Rhetoric Image

  • Denotation is what is photographed, whereas connotation is how it is photographed
  • However, in photography, denotation is foregrounded at the expense of connotation
  • Barthes argued that only at a level higher than the literal level of denotation, could a code be identified, that of connotation
  • Barthes argues that denotation is just another connotation, as denotation is not the first meaning, but pretends to be so. Under an illusion, it ultimately no more than the last of the connotations
  • Such a process leads to the powerful illusion that denotation is purely literal and universal meaning which is not at all ideological, because denotation is seen no more of a natural meaning than is connotation. This also means that those connotations which seem obvious to individual interpreters are just as natural
  • Hence, when we first learn denotations, we are also being positioned within ideology by learning dominant connotations at the same time

Denotation, Connotation in Semiotics

  • In semiotics, denotation and connotation are terms describing the relationship between the signifier and it’s signified
  • A systematic difference is made between two types of signified, a denotative signified and connotative signified
  • Most semioticans argue that no sign is purely denotative, lacking connotation. There can be no object description which is free of an evaluative element
  • The denotation meaning of a sign would be broadly agreed upon by members of the same culture

Roland Barthes and ‘Rhetoric of the Image’ (Panzani)

  • In the essay, Barthes demonstrates the detail power of connotation in the context of advertising
  • In the Panzani advertisement, the name Panzani does not simply indicate the name of the company or brand, but has an additional signified, which is Italianicity. The linguistic message is therefore twofold in this image, being denotational and connotational. This is counted as one message since we only have a single sign (Panzani) in written language
  • A second sign is less evident; the signifier of the bringing together of the tomato, the pepper and the tricoloured hues of the poster. Its signified is Italy, or rather Italianicity. This sign therefore stands in relation of redundancy with the connoted sign of the linguistic message (the Italian meaning of the name Panzani). The knowledge it draws upon is already more particular, specifically French knowledge  

The Image of a Young Negro in Paris-Match

  • In the image there is a signifier, where a black soldier is giving the French salute, with his eyes uplifted, probably fixed on a fold of the tricolor of the French flag
  • There is also a signified. France is a great Empire, that all her sons, without any colour discrimination, faithfully serve under flag, that there is no better answer to detractors of an alleged colonial then the zeal shown by this Negro in serving his so-called oppressors (a form of connotation)
  • When the combining the order of significations in this image, it leads to myth. A young Negro saluting to the great Empire of France with pride
  • It is a myth because to understand the true signified of this image, one must know the biography of the Negro
  • Hence the form (in this case the image) does not suppress (hold back) the meaning, it weakens it and puts it at a distance
  • The form of myth is not a symbol (Ex. The Negro who salutes is not the symbol of the French Empire. He has too much presence. He appears as a rich, fully experienced, spontaneous, innocent, undeniable image)
  • In this image, what the myth has done is it’s purified the historical and contingent quality of colonialism. Hence, we are presented with a fabricated quality of colonialism in the Negro image
  • Myth does not deny things, on the contrary, its function is to talk to about them. Simply, it purifies them, it makes them innocent, it gives them a natural and eternal justification


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