Painting, Photography and Film, Spring, 2002

The naturalization of the cultural: some comments on Roland Barthes:

The writer and critic Roland Barthes has contributed much to our understanding of how photography operates in our culture. A good introduction to his approach to photography is his essay, "The Photographic Message" as well as his last book "Camera Lucida" which is devoted entirely to a meditation on photography. Some basic principles that Barthes has set forth in his writings are summarized by Frank Webster in his essay, "Semiology: Principles and Practices":

"Roland Barthes has developed the important distinction in semiology between denotation and connotation. Though this is not a new concept...it complements (and indeed frequently repeats) Barthes other work on signification and the creation of myth.
Denotation is that which is "objectively" present in a sign; connotation is meaning which is introduced by an audience reading beyond the literal (denotated) sign. Denotation is the actuality; connotation is the level of interpretation.
Connotation clearly is an interpretive concept: it depends critically on the cultural context in which the denoted sign operates...(Example): ÔpigÕ has a denoted meaning of the Ôanimal pig,Õ an animal which produces meats (bacon, pork, etc.) The connotative meaning can range from useful animal to police to Orwellian metaphor."

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Barthes asserts that because photography is a "message without a code," it enables connotative, culturally determined meanings to be read as denotative, literal fact. Photography has a tendency to take what is cultural and interpretive, and make it appear to be natural and irrefutable. This quality of the photography has, for Barthes, important political and social consequences because the photograph is capable of "lying" while at the same time appearing to be "innocent," i.e., doing nothing more than describing actuality. Photography therefore plays an important part in the construction of cultural myths - ways of thinking about the world which have been culturally determined but which acquire a sense of "naturalness" or "innocence" and become regarded as eternal and as unchangeable as the movement of the planets around the sun. John Sturrock, in another essay on Barthes, uses the mystification, but in the passage from his essay below, we could also substitute mythification for mystification:

"Mystification (is) a term of censure which Barthes took over from Marxism and which has been ever since a vital constituent of his vocabulary. Mystification is a sinister, conspiratorial force, whose quite immoral purpose is to endow historical or cultural phenomena with all of the appearance of natural ones. The answer to mystification can only be de-mystification, a hygiene which is the responsibility of those members of a community intelligent enough not to be taken in by the mystifiers. Demystification works by demonstrating to the victims of mystification the devious methods by which they have been tricked; it is a technique of social and political enlightenment."
- John Sturrock, Structuralism and Since, (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1979)